Dr Harold Gunatillake
Human gut including the stomach and small bowel contains over trillions of bacteria referred to as ‘gut microbiota’. Medical researchers have found recently that diet can cause vital changes in the metabolism of these microbiota and cause disease. Good examples of gut inflammatory diseases caused by this microbiota are Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, among others.
It was Israeli researchers at the Weizmann Institute that found the link between sweeteners and obesity. The Weizmann scientists carried out a series of experiments with mice and people using three sweeteners – saccharin, sucralose and aspartame – that are commonly incorporated into low-calorie snacks and beverages. Sports and energy drinks often contain two different “intense sweeteners” as the chemicals are sometimes known.
The study found that all three induced metabolic changes such as glucose intolerance which are associated with diabetes and obesity, though the effect was strongest for saccharin. Artificial sweeteners were introduced into soda, sweet drinks and other beverages assuming that such no calorie chemicals will normalise the good glucose levels without compromising the human sweet tooth. All these drinks are marketed as “sugar-free” or “diet”, including soft drinks, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juices and ice cream and yoghurt.
Artificial sweeteners are also widely used in processed foods, including baked goods, powdered drink mixes, puddings, canned foods, jams and jellies, dairy products and other foods. They are synthetic sugar substitutes but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. They are also known as intense sweeteners because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are used with the belief that their lack of calories will help to reduce weight and also lower the sugar level in the blood to control diabetes. Today, research has revealed that you are wrong.
“Artificial sweeteners seem to cause obesity and diabetes as much as sugars, so the researchers have found out and not alleviate, obesity-related metabolic conditions, by altering the composition and function of bacterial population in the gut,” Cathryn Nager and Taylor Feehley of the Pathology Department at the University of Chicago said in a journal commentary.
The journal Nature, researchers report that artificial sweeteners increase the blood sugar levels in both mice and humans by interfering with microbes in the gut. Increased blood sugar levels are an early indicator of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic disease. Mice whose drinking water was supplemented with artificial sweetener developed glucose intolerance compared with mice drinking water alone, or water with just sugar in it. The effect occurred both in mice fed normal chow and those on a high-fat diet.
When antibiotics were used to kill off gut bacteria, the artificial sweetener effect on glucose intolerance in mice fed either diet was restored to normal. The increase in consumption of artificial sweeteners coincides with the obesity and diabetes epidemics, Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his co-authors said.
“Our findings suggest that non-caloric artificial sweeteners may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.”
If sugar substitutes cause the same damage in your body as the natural sugar intake, what would be the next alternative?
The scientist and engineer Gilbert V. Levin, who developed the experiment that reported life on Mars, also discovered a substitute that tastes like sugar, is almost as sweet and is mostly devoid of calories. The sweetener, tagatose, is in fact a sugar that occurs naturally, in minute quantities, in milk and beets. Clinical studies indicate that it even works as a drug to treat adult diabete. But Dr Levin was never able to get it manufactured in quantity at a viable cost, and efforts to have it approved as a diabetes drug have also foundered.
Another approach is not to replace sugar but to look for other molecules that magnify its sweetness. It takes a lot of sugar to activate a sweetness receptor, and Senomyx, a company in San Diego, believes it can find compounds that would reduce the amount needed. PepsiCo is one of the companies Senomyx is working with.
Ordinary table sugar we enjoy in a cup of tea consists of two smaller sugars, fructose and glucose. Corn syrup popular in the US is such a combination of fructose and glucose almost in the same proportions.
It is assumed that it is the fructose portion of sugars the cause of ills like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the reason being that the fructose molecule has to be broken down in the liver; the flow of sugar may be overworking the liver. With sodas in the market you’re pouring fructose into your liver, as reported by Dr Breslin.
Glucose on the other hand is broken down in most cells in the body and by itself would not put as much strain on the liver. Glucose is found to be not nearly as sweet (ref Challenges of Tricking the Taste Buds by Kenneth Chang-June 11, 2012)
The readers of this paper will be at a quandary whether to continue artificial sweeteners by those who trusted its benefits or whether to revert to the sweet natural sugars.
Both seem to not alleviate the weight problem, and neither assists to bring down blood sugar levels among diabetics.