Why I quit non-caloric artificial sweeteners

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A flawed but interesting study

A somewhat controversial study was published last week which claimed that non-caloric artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame may cause glucose intolerance by changing the composition of the beneficial microbes in the digestive system.

The Calorie Control Council (an international association of manufacturers of low-calorie, reduced-fat and artificially sweetened foods and beverages) quickly released a statement poking holes in the validity of the study and their findings. While they obviously wanted to protect their own interests, they had some excellent points, including:

  1. Small sample size of test subjects.
  2. Unrealistically high levels of consumed sweeteners
  3. No control group in the human study.
  4. Too much reliance on the findings of the mice study.
  5. Too short a test period for the human study.

I agree with all of the criticisms of this study, and yet I found it so compelling that I immediately eliminated artificial sweeteners from my diet. I didn’t just reach this personal decision based on one study’s findings, but rather as the final interesting (even though not entirely conclusive) bit of evidence to go along with everything else I’ve been reading.

We have more than just our own cells helping us

We are beginning to realize that the colonies of beneficial bacteria that exist within our bodies are as much a part of a properly functioning system as our blood cells, T cells, mitochondria, etc. We are all complex multicellular organisms, and while the trillions of bacteria in our digestive system don’t share our DNA, they have a vested interest in keeping our bodies running properly. From this particular study, the thing I found most interesting was that glucose intolerance could be transferred from one mouse to another by injecting the changed microbe colonies into their digestive systems, and this same glucose intolerance was easily reversed with a course of antibiotics.

More and more evidence is pointing to the fact that messing with our digestive microbiome is partially responsible for rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The following points are by no means conclusive proof that everyone should avoid non-caloric artificial sweeteners, they are simply the thoughts that led me to change my own habits. While studies have shown that these sweeteners can aid in weight loss and I do think they are a helpful step for breaking the sugar addiction, I no longer believe we should rely on them long term.

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1. Antibiotics in livestock: In 2001, the Union of Concerned Citizens published a report explaining how 90% of the antibiotics used in the United States went to livestock. One reason was to keep them infection-free in the increasingly unsanitary conditions of factory farms, but the other reason was because it caused them to grow larger and fatter on less feed. One review not only showed this same growth could be seen in humans after undergoing treatment with antibiotics, but they also surmised that the growing use of antibiotics in farming over the past 20 years and the growing incidences of obesity in that same timeframe were related. They theorize residual exposure from all these antibiotics in our food may in part be responsible for rising obesity rates.

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2. Diet makes long term changes to the microbiome: As scientists have begun to understand that the trillions of bacteria within our digestive systems basically act as another digestive organ, they started examining the make up of this invisible organ across cultures. They found that different diets result in a different kind of microbiome and changes to the diet would eventually change the bacterial make up entirely. Different bacteria digest different macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) and providing different food sources will cause some colonies to die off and others to thrive.

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3. No free lunches in nature: This is one of those things that doctors understand, but we seem to forget. We talk about side effects for our medications, but doctors just think of them as effects. The positive effects of the medication outweigh the negative effects (which is why we take them), but it is impossible to alter our complex physiologies without some unintended consequences. I’m not anti-medicine. I will take any medication or supplement when the positive effects significantly outweigh the negative effects, and I constantly look for research to make sure that is true. I’ve always wondered why these non-caloric artificial sweeteners seemed like a free lunch, yet casual observations and conflicting studies showed that maybe they did have consequences. I think we’re now finding out what those consequences to our bodies may be. Perhaps some people are more susceptible to these changes than others. Perhaps these changes really are inconsequential and other factors are more to blame. We definitely don’t have the answers yet, but they are very interesting questions that hopefully more researchers will continue to look into.

Antibiotics yes, artificial sweeteners no

Just as a closing thought, I want to stress that while antibiotic use can affect weight gain, their use, along with vaccines and modern obstetrics practices, are the three things that have drastically extended the average lifespan of the human race. I do suggest using antibiotics sparingly (they don’t work for colds or the flu) to limit the rise of antibiotic-resistant organisms, but please don’t avoid them over some fear of gaining a few pounds. Farmers use low doses over a prolonged period of time to grow their livestock. Your microbiome will bounce back after a short bout of antibiotics, but people don’t tend to use artificial sweeteners for a short period of time (I know I used them almost daily). Antibiotics are one of the single greatest human inventions and even if they have this little side effect, the effect of saving your life is well worth it. I just wanted people to understand that the fact this side effect exists influenced my personal decision to drop artificial sweeteners, but by no means will I stop using antibiotics for myself or my family.

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