Artificial sweeteners linked to host of digestive diseases, study finds
06 Oct 2021 --- Artificial sweeteners may be causing long-term digestive diseases and discomfort, according to a new study by Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), in Israel.
The study revealed that at least three of the six FDA-approved artificial sweeteners which were tested – aspartame, sucralose and saccharin – may disrupt microbial gut balance.
“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should certainly look into the use of sweeteners which are widespread in everything ranging from baked goods to sugar substitutes,” professor Ariel Kushmaro from BGU, who co-led the research, tells NutritionInsight.
“Consumers should also be advised that use of these sweeteners may not be effective in aiding weight loss.”
“This significant BGU study affects millions of people in the US, including children and adolescents. The study’s findings are enlightening and should be helpful in guiding our consumption of artificial sweeteners,” adds Doug Seserman, chief executive officer of BGU.
Sweeteners meddling in gut bacteria
Research has shown that bacteria act in a collective fashion through a sophisticated network of cell-cell communication, known as quorum sensing (QS).
The study revealed that aspartame, sucralose and saccharin exert significant inhibitory effects on gut microbiota homeostasis, which can promote the progression of long-term digestive diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“It was surprising that these molecules could alter the communication and makeup of this flora,” Kushmaro states.
The researchers focused their study on sports supplements that are consumed in large quantities by athletes who pay attention to their diet and use supplements to improve performance.
At least one of the three sweeteners was found in undisclosed amounts in all the sports supplements tested.
“The scientific community has been striving to come to a consensus about the safety of the artificial sweeteners recommended for weight loss and as a sugar substitute for people with Type 2 diabetes and glucose intolerance,” says lead researcher Dr. Karina Goldberg of BGU.
“Our findings reveal that artificial sweeteners do, in fact, disrupt bacterial communication, which can negatively impact digestive balance and are harmful to gut health.”
Industry hits back at findings
The fact that sweeteners are confirmed to be safe by regulatory authorities across the world should highlight that low and no calorie sweeteners are safe, Caroline Hance, communications manager at the International Sweeteners Association (ISA), tells NutritionInsight.
Hance also argues that the study in question uses in vitro models, which would be different to the environment in the human intestine.
“At a time when obesity and non-communicable diseases including diabetes and dental diseases remain major global health challenges, and in light of current public health recommendations to reduce overall sugar intake, low and no calorie sweeteners including aspartame, sucralose and saccharin can be helpful in creating healthier food environments,” she adds.
Such alternatives provide a range of sweet alternatives with a low-calorie impact without contributing to tooth decay as they are not fermentable by oral bacteria, Hance notes.
Sugar vs. sweeteners
Reports show the number of products containing artificial sweeteners has quadrupled as governments call for regulations to reduce sugar, the researchers say.
As a result, it has become difficult to assess the true impact of these sweeteners, which are not clearly labeled on the mass-produced food and drinks being consumed in greater amounts by many people, including children and adolescents, they add.
The study comes as transparency has been highlighted as a top trend by Innova Market Insights, with three in five global consumers saying that they are interested in “learning more about where their food comes from and how it is made.”
The market researcher also found that 91% of consumers are “at least a little” influenced by sugar reduction claims. Strategies in this context vary and include complete removal of sugar, blending sugar with sweeteners and advances in sugar science.
Innova Market Insights notes that concerns over sugar intake are driving a sophisticated approach to sweetening foods and beverages. Consumers are taking into account a range of conditions associated with sugar, including weight gain, diabetes and hyperactivity in children.
By Andria Kades
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