By Elizabeth Herrin, MS, RD, LD
Non-nutritive sweeteners, commonly referred to as “fake sugar,” Splenda, Equal, or Sweet & Low, have been well researched for safety and efficacy over the past several years. While these compounds taste sweet to the human tongue, they do not provide a significant number of calories or other nutritional value. Thus, they have become a holy grail for those who enjoy the taste of sugar but may have medical conditions like obesity or diabetes. Dozens, if not hundreds, of products use these ingredients for sugar free alternatives to popular treats: diet sodas, baked goods and candies, gum, etc.
These products are safe. There are no studies that show long term harm from moderate consumption of these ingredients. However, could we be doing better for our health? Could they have harmful side effects?
In August of this year, a new study was published in the journal “Cell,” which is a well respected and peer reviewed journal. It was conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and found that these non-nutritive sweeteners may change how well our body handles regular sugar, or glucose, in a negative way. They also found changes in the gut bacteria of those who consumed these sweeteners.
In this study, 120 healthy adults were divided into six different groups with each group receiving a different quantity of non-nutritive sweeteners and/or glucose. They were told not to change their diet otherwise, and their diets were not controlled in the study. The results? Saccharin (Sweet N Low™) and sucralose (Splenda®) impacted the glucose tolerance of the subjects. This means that their blood sugars were significantly less controlled than the other groups. No significant differences were found in the Stevia and Aspartame categories.
However, all four of the non-nutritive sweeteners tested impacted the gut bacteria of the subjects. The fecal samples taken from the subjects all showed changes in their microbiome after consumption of the sweeteners. They did not draw conclusions in this study on whether these changes were neutral, beneficial, or detrimental.
So…what does this mean for us? Can we draw any recommendations from this study? The short answer is no. One study alone can’t dictate blanket recommendations. However, this is consistent with the World Health Organization’s recent warning that the benefits of non-nutritive sweeteners may be outweighed by potential risk for long term side effects.
We will have to wait for more research in this area before drawing conclusions, but it is definitely a shift in the way we will think about non-nutritive sweeteners moving forward.