Sweetening the pot

sugar photo by Alden Chadwick

I always thought that artificial sweeteners were kind of silly, for those of us without diabetes, that is, and maybe full of chemicals besides (although in college I had a Tab habit). That teaspoon of real sugar in your coffee or tea gives you only 16 calories, not enough to bust your belt buckle. Granted, some of us have health issues that make us need to limit or cut out sugar, and it doesn’t do our teeth any favors. Refined sugar isn’t health food and has a host of ills, the extent of which depends on your source. But when it’s about counting calories, that little bit of sugar just doesn’t have that many.

According to some recent studies, it now appears that those artificial sweeteners may cause more harm than good. The Calorie Control Council claims that the number of Americans who consume artificially sweetened foods and beverages climbed from 78 million to 187 million between 1986 and 2010. It’s not just those little packets of Equal. We find artificial sweeteners on the shelves lurking in diet sodas, flavored drinks, juices, yogurt, pudding, gum, candy, baked goods, jams and jellies and more.

In the 1970s studies found that saccharine (in Sweet ‘N Low) led to bladder cancer in lab rats. But the National Cancer Institute has since said there’s no risk. Subsequent studies claimed that in limited quantities it was safe, and so has the FDA.

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Artificial sweeteners aren’t always so artificial, and may be made of herbs or from isolated parts of the sugar molecule. We like that they have few to no calories. If you normally drink six Cokes a day, the diet ones will pack on fewer pounds.

 

News broke last week that some of the fake sugars could lead to pre-diabetes by affecting the friendly hitchhikers we call the bacteria in our intestines, bacteria which metabolize sugars like glucose or fructose (table sugar is half and half). The journal Nature published a study in which the sweeteners that are used in Sweet ‘N Low, Equal or Splenda (saccharine, aspartame or sucralose) were put into the drinking water of lab mice. Other mice got real sugar and others plain water. Nearly three months later, the first group of mice tested higher for glucose intolerance and blood sugar levels than the others, meaning their guts had lost the ability to metabolize sugar, a condition that can lead to type two diabetes. The researchers tried the same experiment on mice that ate a diet high in fat, and then did a four-week run of antibiotic treatment to destroy all their gut bacteria, which put them all back at the same level of sugar-processing ability.

Studying 381 human members of an ongoing clinical trial on nutrition showed a link between artificial sweeteners and higher weights and higher blood-sugar levels. Besides the diabetes risk, high-fasting blood sugar results can lead to other health problems like eye and kidney diseases.

The researchers then did a short, one-week study on seven subjects who normally didn’t use artificial sweeteners and gave them the equivalent of how much would be in 40 cans of diet soda a day. At the end of the week, four had trouble metabolizing sugar while three were fine.

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