- Consuming artificial sweeteners could increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to research from the University of Adelaide. The researchers investigated whether large amounts of no-calorie artificial sweeteners altered the ability of the body to control the levels of glucose in the blood.
- Some of the 27 healthy volunteers for the study were given capsules of sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame K that were the equivalent of 1.5 liters (about six cups) of diet beverage per day. Some volunteers took the capsules before meals three times a day for two weeks, while others were given a placebo.
- After two weeks, tests showed an impaired bodily response to glucose in those given the sweetener. “This study supports the concept that artificial sweeteners could reduce the body’s control of blood sugar levels and highlights the potential for exaggerated post-meal glucose levels in high habitual NAS [non-caloric artificial sweeteners] users, which could predispose them to develop type 2 diabetes,” the researchers said.
Because the study group was relatively small and details of the research results have yet to be published, the conclusions of this Australian study have attracted some skepticism.
Emma Elvin, a clinical advisor at Diabetes UK, told The Guardian that "this is a small study with interesting results, but it doesn't provide strong evidence that artificial sweeteners increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes." She added that larger testing trials in more real life settings need to take place before more can be concluded.
Victor Zammit, professor of metabolic biochemistry at the University of Warwick, said the available data made it impossible to conclude that the body’s changed response to glucose would necessarily result in diabetes, and that proper clinical trials were needed. "Increased sweetener intake may be associated with other lifestyle elements that may be more direct causes of type 2 diabetes," he told The Guardian.
Other studies, usually on mice, have suggested that different artificial sweeteners, particularly saccharin, altered gut bacteria which help to digest nutrients. Such changes may limit the body's ability to handle sugar, and if that leads to glucose intolerance, it can be an early warning sign of Type 2 diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners have been losing their appeal in the U.S. marketplace for some time as increasing information comes to light about their less-desirable aspects such as weight gain. Consumers also have cut back on sugar and high-fructose corn syrup for health reasons. Meanwhile, natural sweeteners derived from stevia, agave and monk fruit, among other sources, have been emerging to take their place.
By July 2018, manufacturers will have to include “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts panel, providing additional motivation to cut sweeteners like sugar, honey, fructose and fruit juice concentrates. Solutions like Tate & Lyle’s blend of allulose, sucralose and fructose may come into their own, allowing food companies to find a compromise with a smaller amount of added sugars and added sweetness from low- and zero-calorie sweeteners.
If nothing else, the Australian study seems to suggest it might be wise for manufacturers to continue experimenting with natural sugar alternatives and/or cutting down or replacing artificial sweeteners in their products — at least until further studies come to light providing a clearer picture of their connection to the risk of Type 2 diabetes.