Artificial Sweeteners: Unintended Consequences

Wouldn’t it be great?  Cola with no calories and no bump in blood sugar. The perfect solution to keep our sweet tooth satisfied at no cost. Too bad it isn’t true.

A new study published in the prestigious journal Nature highlights the unexpected finding that adding a zero calorie artificial sweetener can send blood sugar levels up. The problem in the old logic was that it didn’t account for the action of bacteria that live in our gut.

It may surprise you to know that we possess more DNA from bacteria living inside our intestines than that in the cells of our body.

The artificial sweeteners alter the normal balance of bacteria in the gut. Certain, less common strains, are fertilized by the artificial sweeteners, causing their numbers to swell while crowding out the strains that typically predominate.

The altered mix of bacteria were shown to have the peculiar ability to send chemical signals to the body that encourage it to produce glucose.

The fact that  bacteria are the culprits in this story was confirmed by showing that antibiotics eliminate the sugar raising effect from artificial sweeteners. This unexpected finding goes a long way to explain the common observation that switching to diet sodas often does not lead to weight loss. And a great example of how we often fail to understand the complexity of nutrition-and how artificially manipulating our diet can upset our body’s delicate ecosystem.

Here are some generally accepted ways to maintain a healthy balance of friendly bacteria in the gut:

  1. Restrict antibiotic use to situations where they are clearly needed
  2. Increase  intake of fermented foods including:
    • yogurt
    • pickles (usual supermarket pickles on the shelf made in vinegar are not fermented-look for refrigerated varieties)
    • sauerkraut (again, choose those in the refrigerated section)
    • miso (look for low salt types)
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