Artificial sweeteners are popular with diabetics and other individuals seeking to lower their sugar intake. But new research suggests the popular sweetener Splenda (sucralose) modifies how the body handles sugar in ways that may prove to be harmful.
The study, conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, tracked the effects of sucralose on 17 severely obese people without diabetes and found it can influence how the body reacts to glucose.
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"Our results indicate that this artificial sweetener is not inert — it does have an effect," said M. Yanina Pepino, a research assistant professor of medicine. "And we need to do more studies to determine whether this observation means long-term use could be harmful."
For the study, published online in the journal Diabetes Care, Pepino's team studied people with an average body mass index (BMI) of just over 42 — well above the level considered obese. The researchers gave subjects either water or sucralose to drink before they were subjected to a glucose challenge test, measuring their bodies’ ability to process and handle sugar.
The main goal was to learn whether the combination of sucralose and glucose would affect insulin and blood sugar levels. "We wanted to study this population because these sweeteners frequently are recommended to them as a way to make their diets healthier by limiting calorie intake," Pepino said.
The results showed the individuals experiences marked differences in blood sugar changes after consuming sucralose.
"When study participants drank sucralose, their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose," Pepino explained. "Insulin levels also rose about 20 percent higher. So the artificial sweetener was related to an enhanced blood insulin and glucose response."
The elevated insulin response could be a good thing, she noted, because it shows the person is able to make enough insulin to deal with spiking glucose levels. But it also might be bad because when people routinely secrete more insulin, they can become resistant to its effects, and that can lead to type 2 diabetes.
The findings challenge long-held beliefs that artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, don't have an effect on metabolism, but merely react to taste buds without carrying the calories associated with natural sweeteners, such as table sugar.
But the new study adds to recent research findings that suggest some sweeteners may be doing more than just making foods and drinks taste sweeter.
"Most of the studies of artificial sweeteners have been conducted in healthy, lean individuals," Pepino said. "In many of these studies, the artificial sweetener is given by itself. But in real life, people rarely consume a sweetener by itself. They use it in their coffee or on breakfast cereal or when they want to sweeten some other food they are eating or drinking."
How sucralose influences glucose and insulin levels in people who are obese isn’t entirely clear.
"Although we found that sucralose affects the glucose and insulin response to glucose ingestion, we don't know the mechanism responsible," said Pepino. "We have shown that sucralose is having an effect. In obese people without diabetes, we have shown sucralose is more than just something sweet that you put into your mouth with no other consequences.
"What these all [these findings] mean for daily life scenarios is still unknown, but our findings are stressing the need for more studies. Whether these acute effects of sucralose will influence how our bodies handle sugar in the long term is something we need to know."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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