Manufacturers of artificial sweeteners would like us to think that they’ve discovered the perfect loophole for enjoying the sweetness of sugar without any of its health risks. As we’ve covered in previous articles, though, nothing could be further from the truth.
The first commercially available artificial sweetener, saccharin, was shown to cause cancer in rats. It was banned as a food additive in 1981, but then deemed not hazardous to humans and unbanned in 2001. It’s worth noting that in these later vindicating studies, researchers do not rule out the carcinogenicity of saccharin; they merely claim that large quantities need to be consumed in order to cause cancer in humans.
Aspartame hit the market next, but it was found to be so toxic that it’s commercial release was delayed for over a decade. Despite its current widespread distribution and use as an artificial sweetener, studies continue to demonstrate that aspartame induces oxidative stress, damages cell membrane integrity, deregulates cellular function, and leads to systemic inflammation.
You’d think that over time, manufacturers would get better at making safer sweeteners, but sucralose seems to be even worse than its predecessors. Studies have linked its consumption to leukemia, severe bowel and kidney issues, cancer and other toxicity-induced cell disorders, neurotoxicity, thyroid dysfunction, and many other health problems.
But at least artificial sweeteners are safe for diabetics and help you lose weight, right? On the contrary, studies have demonstrated that consuming artificial sweeteners can be just as harmful as sugar (if not worse) in these scenarios. One study even found that people who consume artificial sweeteners are up to 67% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Why artificial sweeteners are so disruptive
Researchers are fascinated by what makes artificial sweeteners such risky substances. The states that they trigger—systemic inflammation, oxidative stress, cellular dysfunction—are primary indicators of disruption on a fundamental level. Perhaps one of the only reasons they’re still deemed “not hazardous to human health” is because it can take a long time for these fundamental markers of imbalance to tip over into full-blown disease—so manufacturers can still get away with calling their products “non-toxic.”
Ever since they first began studying artificial sweeteners, researchers have searched for a specific metric for discussing their disruptive effect—some sort of mechanism that could underly all the markers of imbalance mentioned above. A new study has provided a suitable answer by demonstrating that artificial sweeteners are toxic to beneficial gut microbes.
Microbiome dysregulation can easily lead to primary imbalances like inflammation and excessive oxidative stress. By viewing it as a mechanism through which artificial sweeteners exert harmful effects on the body, we can more precisely understand the toxicity of these substances.
The study in question used a modified form of bioluminescent bacteria that literally glows when exposed to substances above a certain level of toxicity. They exposed the bacteria to aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and acesulfame potassium-k, as well as ten different sport supplements containing these artificial sweeteners. In all cases, the bacteria “became toxic” with a mere 1 mg/ml concentration of artificial sweetener.
The researchers believe their results provide “further evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners adversely affects gut microbial activity, which can cause a wide range of health issues.” They hope these findings help us understand “the relative toxicity of artificial sweeteners and the potential of negative effects on the gut microbial community as well as the environment.”
There’s no good reason to use artificial sweeteners
The action steps for protecting yourself and your microbiome should be pretty clear in this case: just stop consuming artificial sweeteners. They are toxic substances with well-documented risks and no advantages whatsoever over conventional sugar.
Even if conservative estimates about their toxicity are correct (meaning that you’d have to consume a very large quantity to be at risk of negative health effects like cancer), the bioaccumulation of toxins over time can still pose a danger. Why take the risk? The study cited above demonstrates that consuming these sweeteners can compromise the integrity of the microbiome long before the development of more severe associated diseases.
There are far healthier sweetener choices anyway. Honey is a perfect example, and just might be nature’s perfect sweetener. Stevia is another safe alternative, though evidence suggests that it should still be used in moderation.
The best approach, however, is to break your addiction to sweet substances altogether—using any sugar substitute doesn’t address this inherent dependency issue. Remember that finding overall balance with your dietary habits is as important as the specific foods and substances that make up your diet.
Regardless of how you choose to find balance, though, do your best to minimize artificial sweetener consumption; your gut flora will thank you.