A new study in rats adds to the evidence that artificial sweeteners may be bad for your health.
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own.
New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type two diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Artificially sweetened foods and drinks have become popular largely due to the growing worldwide obesity crisis. As sugar contains four calories per gram, sweet foods and drinks are normally highly calorific. In principle, by removing these calories we reduce energy intake and this helps to prevent weight gain.
The new research, from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, looked at some biological effects of sweeteners in rats and in cell cultures. They wanted to know if artificial sweeteners affect how food is used and stored. These are called metabolic changes and the research combined many different aspects of metabolism to build an overall picture.
The scientists gave rats food that was high in either sugar (glucose or fructose) or calorie-free artificial sweeteners (aspartame or acesulfame potassium). After three weeks they saw significant negative changes in both groups of rats. These changes included the concentrations of blood lipids (fats).
What does this mean for the average consumer of artificial sweeteners? As the study was performed in animals and not humans it would be wrong to draw firm conclusions about what might happen in people. The findings of the study do, however, add to the growing body of research that suggests that sweeteners are not benign alternatives to sugar.
The European Food Safety Authority suggests a daily limit to most artificial sweeteners of around five milligrams per kilogram of body weight, per day. With so many foods including artificial sweeteners now, it is relatively easy to reach this limit.
It is likely that the best advice is the blandest: everything in moderation. There is no such thing as good or bad food, only good or bad amounts. Maybe avoid consuming too much of either sugar or sweetener, especially in drinks.