Source: Clay Junell/flickr
Source: Clay Junell/flickr

Researchers report that artificial sweeteners can cause health changes that are linked with diabetes and obesity, suggesting that switching from regular to diet soda may not be the solution to avoiding these two disorders.

Using unbiased high-throughput metabolomics, a new study tracked biochemical changes in the body after consumption of sugar or sugar substitutes. The team also looked at impacts on vascular health by studying how the substances affect the lining of blood vessels. The studies were conducted in rats and cell cultures. 

“Despite the addition of these noncaloric artificial sweeteners to our everyday diets, there has still been a drastic rise in obesity and diabetes,” said lead researcher Brian Hoffmann, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University. “In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes, albeit through very different mechanisms from each other.”

Dr. Hoffmann is presenting the results of the study at the American Physiological Society annual meeting during the Experimental Biology conference this week in San Diego.

The scientists fed different groups of rats diets high in glucose or fructose, or aspartame or acesulfame potassium (common zero-calorie artificial sweeteners). After three weeks, the researchers saw significant differences in the concentrations of biochemicals, fats, and amino acids in blood samples. 

The results suggest artificial sweeteners change how the body processes fat and gets its energy. In addition, they found acesulfame potassium seemed to accumulate in the blood, with higher concentrations having a more harmful effect on the cells that line blood vessels. 

“We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down,” Dr. Hoffmann said. “We also observed that replacing these sugars with noncaloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism.”

The investigators cautioned that the results do not provide a clear answer, and the question warrants further study. It is well known that high dietary sugar is linked to negative health outcomes and the study suggests artificial sweeteners are, too.

“It is not as simple as 'stop using artificial sweeteners' being the key to solving overall health outcomes related to diabetes and obesity,” Dr. Hoffmann added. “If you chronically consume these foreign substances (as with sugar), the risk of negative health outcomes increases. As with other dietary components, I like to tell people moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet.”

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