New research presented at the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego last weekend looked at the influence of sugar and artificial sweeteners on vascular health in relation to diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners have been used as alternatives to sugar for a long time, but it’s only recently that the negative implications of using them in the place of sugar has been increasingly scrutinized as a potential contributor to the dramatic increase in diabetes and obesity, along with the associated complications.
Dr. Brian Hoffman, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Medical College of Wisconsin and his team, George Ronan, and Dhanush Haspula found a host of pathways linking artificial sweeteners to changes at the cellular level. Their conclusion was that high amounts of glucose, and artificial sweetener leads to a vascular impairment that may lead to diabetes and obesity.
“Our study showed there were disruptions in the biochemical pathways related to fat and energy metabolism in the rat model consuming aspartame, acesulfame potassium, or fructose for three weeks,” Hoffman explains.
He says both aspartame and acesulfame potassium had significant changes including an increase in lipids in the bloodstream and coincidently decreases in molecules involved in clearing lipids from the bloodstream.
“The body has a very delicate balance of processes required for energy,” he explains, “including the use of glucose for energy, and any chronic disruption of these processes can have numerous negative health effects.”
The researchers also detected an acesulfame potassium accumulation in the blood during the study, which Hoffman notes could have effects on the cardiovascular system as well.
Artificial sweeteners have had a long-running history in the United States, with the first artificial sweeteners, saccharin, and cyclamate developed as far back as 1879. Increased awareness of the negative health consequences of consuming too much sugar has led to the consumption and popularity of artificial sweeteners in recent years.
Guidelines have started to require foods with “added sugars” to be labeled, as there is sugar found in the food normally– and then quite often, extra sugar is added while being processed.
“This [labeling] is something that can really help the consumer make an informed decision, especially since the chronic overconsumption of sugar has long been linked to negative health outcomes.” Hoffmann states.
As far as heightened labeling protocols in the artificial sweetener area, however, Hoffman says “there is still a lot that is unknown, however, studies such as ours looking at the biochemical changes of the body in response to chronic consumption will help to better inform us.”
He believes as more studies are done to measure both biochemical and functional changes in the body, that labeling foods with associated risks are something that the appropriate decision makers can make at that time.
As for answering the question whether artificial sweeteners are a healthy choice or not, Hoffmann explains there is a delicate balance of glucose, fats, and amino acids (building blocks to proteins) in the body that are required for normal function. “Metabolic disruptions in any of these can severely alter the body’s normal balance or homeostasis, which can subsequently lead to negative health outcomes.”
To the American public, who now, more than ever might be confused about their use of artificial sweeteners, Hoffmann emphasizes the key is moderation. “If you chronically consume sugar or artificial sweeteners your body doesn’t have a chance to recover from the biochemical changes and as these accumulate it can have health consequences.”
While it is well known that a diet high in sugar and fructose leads to negative health problems such as diabetes, this recent study indicates that artificial sweeteners may, in the end, lead to the same problems.
It’s still not clear, however, which is worse for you: artificial sweeteners or sugar. Hoffman and his team did not answer this question. And, while he knew that the topic at hand is of interest because of the widespread use of both sugar and artificial sweetener additives, “I did not expect this kind of attention from our presentation,” he admits, which has created quite a buzz in the press this week. Hopefully, all the attention from the public and the scientific community will warrant further research.
Artificial Sweeteners Approved by the FDA:
1. Splenda or Sucralose. First approved for use in 1998. No more than 23 packets/day.
2. Sweet One or Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K). First approved for use in 1988. No more than 23 packets/day.
3. Newtame – No more than 23 packets/day.
4. Sweet’N Low or Saccharin. First discovered and used in 1879, before the current food additive approval process came into effect in 1958. No more than 45 packets/day.
5. Equal or Aspartame. First approved for use in 1981. No more than 75 packets/ day.
6. Advantame – does not yet have a brand name.
- Experimental Biology 2018. “The Influence of Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners on Vascular Health during the Onset and Progression of Diabetes,” Accessed April 24, 2018. https://plan.core-apps.com/eb2018/abstract/382e0c7eb95d6e76976fbc663612d58a
- Research Features. “No Substitute.” Accessed April 24, 2018. https://researchfeatures.com/2018/04/05/no-substitute/
- FDA.gov. “How Sweet It Is: All About Sugar Substitutes.” Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm397711.htm