Life Lines by Dr. Dolittle

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Low-calorie sweeteners – harmful or hype?


Researchers at Columbia University wanted to examine whether low-calorie sweeteners disrupt glucose tolerance as there are conflicting reports in both human and animal studies. Their results examining the link between low-calorie sweeteners and glucose regulation in mice are published in the upcoming issue of the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology.

In their first experiment, the research team found no differences in glucose tolerance or body weight between mice that were provided saccharin, sucralose or acesulfame K low-calorie sweeteners in their drinking water for 4 weeks.

In their second experiment, they no differences in glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, body fat or circulating triglycerides between saccharin with and without the addition of glucose. In contrast, the glucose only solution increased body fat but did not change circulating levels of fats (measured as triglycerides). What was really interesting is that mice actually chose to drink more water when it contained glucose alone or in combination with saccharin compared to plain drinking water. In fact, they drank more than their own weight in glucose only sweetened water – could you imagine??

Perhaps not surprisingly, the initial rise in blood sugar during a glucose tolerance test was greater in animals that drank the glucose containing solutions compared to plain water. Although animals that drank the glucose-only water did show increased removal of glucose from the blood during the tolerance test, which may be explained by an earlier rise in circulating insulin levels and greater insulin sensitivity.

Of potential concern to wildlife is the finding that these low-calorie sweeteners are not processed by humans and thus end up in our wastewater (via toilets). Bikram Subedi and Kurunthachalam Kannan published a report in 2014 that showed wastewater treatment plants in Albany New York were able to remove 68.2% of the aspartame and 90.3% of the saccharin in the wastewater, but less than 2% of the sucralose and acesulfame were removed. This means that these sweeteners could end up in streams and lakes and may possibly impact wildlife. Although a study of sucralose in particular showed it does not accumulate in aquatic plants or zebrafish. 

Looks like the jury is still out whether these sweeteners are harmful or whether it is just hype.

JI Glendinning, S Hart, H Lee, J Maleh, G Ortiz, YS Ryu, A Sanchez, S Shelling, N Williams. Low-calorie sweeteners cause only limited metabolic effects in mice. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 318(1): R70-R80, 2020.

B Subedi, K Kannan. Fate of Artificial Sweeteners in Wastewater Treatment Plants in New York State, U.S.A. Environ Sci Technol. 48(23): 13668-13674, 2014.

A Lillicrap, K Langford, KE Tollefsen. Bioconcentration of the intense sweetener sucralose in a multitrophic battery of aquatic organisms. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 30(3): 673-681, 2011.

Categories: Diet and Exercise

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