An obesity endemic has fuelled the popularity of artificial sweeteners. These fake sugars are devoid of any calories and you can confidently consume all the sugary stuff without the fear of packing those extra pounds. This strategy is also believed to reduce blood sugar levels, which combined with weight control is an ideal approach to reduce the risk of metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes.
But is using artificial sweeteners the right approach to accomplish your weight loss goals? How does your body react when the sweetness is decoupled from the calorie intake? These concerns are important, with many suspecting that this fake sweetness may cost our health dearly, especially in the long-run.
What the science says?
Many studies shows that artificial sweeteners interfere with the brain chemistry and have an effect on the hormones involved in regulating appetite and satiety – thereby promoting the body’s craving for carbohydrates or sugars . And how does it work? It works by confusing the body, but not completely fooling it.
When we eat something sweet, the brain releases dopamine – activating the brain's reward centre. Once you devour enough calories, the fat cells secrete leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite. It basically conveys to the brain that we are full. As a result, we stop craving more food or feeling hungry. Amazing how our body functions, isn’t it? Now let’s see what happens were we try to trick our body by consuming fake sugars.
When we are consuming artificial sweeteners, we are basically having sugar with no calories. The sweet taste activates food reward pathways but the absence of calories means the brain will have no means to deactivate it. Obviously, there is a major state of confusion when the sweet taste signals upcoming calories but they never actually arrive. Result? The body continues to signal that it needs energy – manifesting increased cravings for carbohydrates and adding up to excess calories. In a study conducted at University of California-San Diego, it was found that sugar activated regions of the brain did associate with the food reward pathways but that sucralose did not .
There is something else going on too. It is now known that our gastrointestinal tract and pancreatic beta cells have the same receptors as in our taste buds that detect sweet things . While activation of these receptors in the pancreatic cells leads to insulin secretion, in the intestine this mechanism affects the uptake of glucose from lumen – leading to increased absorption of glucose which is stored as a belly fat.
There is also a monumental body of evidence suggesting that these non-calorific sweeteners cause glucose intolerance, better known as type 2 diabetes, weight gain     and may even increase the risk of heart diseases   . The burning question is “aren’t artificial sweeteners actually intended to bypass these effects in the very first place?”
Agreed: a few of these studies may not be conclusive, but the fact remains most of them strongly point to serious health risks and that should be a reason enough to get worried.
This brings us to another research that suggests a positive link between artificial sweeteners, obesity and glucose intolerance. While not the first to identify this association and not conclusive according to the field experts, this study still proves to be an important milestone in providing a possible reason as to what may cause artificial sweeteners to trigger obesity and glucose intolerance.
Artificial sweeteners may alter the gut flora and cause glucose intolerance, a study says
According to the study , artificial sweeteners bring a shift in the composition and functions of gut bacteria. We know that trillions of microbes dwelling within our digestive tract, gut microbiome, play an integral role in metabolism – where food is converted into energy to use immediately or to store as fat.
Artificial sweeteners appear to increase the population of firmicutes, a specific group of bacteria that are more efficient in extracting energy from the food and storing this energy as fat in the body. These fake sugars thus appear to cause weight gain and glucose intolerance by disrupting the balance in gut flora.
However, the study authors cautioned not everyone is susceptible to potential influence of artificial sweeteners on the gut bacteria in the same way. The authors believe that findings warrant additional research to determine what set of people are more vulnerable and also to throw further light on the pathways and mechanism by which gut microbes may drive metabolic disturbances. Other experts and researchers in this area also emphasize that this is a small data and the study is not conclusive. But it is still considered a landmark study spurring the need for more research in this direction.
Common sense says these sweeteners are foreign chemical molecules. And we already saw that our body is not adept at metabolizing these in the same way as natural sweeteners. It is possible these sweeteners are selective in nature in exerting their effects. After all, a body’s assemblage of gut microbes reflects genetic and environmental history, which is highly individual. But one can’t just ignore a substantial body of work  driving the point home that artificial sweeteners may not be as safe as we are led to believe.
It seems we have to wait for more definitive studies, as the studies highlighting the negative side of artificial sweeteners may be inconclusive. But does that directly mean the studies showing desired, positive effects are conclusive and should be blindly trusted? What do you think?
Some food for thought!
As always, we would encourage you to do your own research. Indeed the findings from so many research and studies are inconclusive and surely a mixed bag. But we will leave you with an interesting story of how Splenda or sucralose came into being. Did you know that this common artificial sweetener was discovered in the process of creating an insecticide?
It all happened when Leslie Hough, a British professor asked an Indian graduate student to ‘test’ an intermediate compound and the student assumed he had been asked to “taste” it. The compound was intensely sweet and this accidental discovery later evolved into the creation of Splenda – chlorinated sugar with three chlorine atoms and taste that was about six hundred times as sweet as sugar. Chemically, Sucralose or Splenda is 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-beta-D-fructofuranosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-alpha-D-galatopyranoside. It is an organochlorine formed when three chlorine molecules are added to one sucrose molecule. Why are we telling you this? It is because insecticides and herbicides such as DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange are all organochlorines.
And this is not all, Saccharin, another common artificial sweetener, is a derivative of coal tar. Now, we leave it up to you to assess the after-taste. Is it sweet or bitter? Let us know what you think.
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