A man opens a bottle of Diet Coke. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The journal Nature published a study this week finding that popular artificial sweeteners used in many food and drinks might trigger high blood-sugar levels in some people.
The Washington Post reports that although the exact reason is unknown, the findings have to do with the ecosystem of bacteria in our gut called the microbiota.
Researchers found that saccharine, sucralose and aspartame (commonly known as Sweet n’ Low, Splenda and Equal) caused glucose intolerance in mice — a condition that can lead to diabetes. They also monitored seven human participants by giving them regular doses of saccharine over the course of a week. Four of them developed glucose intolerance.
The Washington Post said these findings add to the long, contentious debate about the risks of artificial sweeteners found in things like diet soda. Some past studies have found no health risks associated with the sweeteners, while others have found they contribute to obesity and cancer.
Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Washington Post the biggest benefit of the study is the link it shows between artificial sweeteners and the microbiota.
The scientists who authored the study said the issue is far from being resolved and that people shouldn’t take this study as a recommendation for cutting out diet soda.
“We do not view that as our role,” Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel told the Washington Post. “Rather, as scientists, we simply point to the immense body of experiments that we carried out in both humans and in mice. . . . This study and these results should prompt additional debates and study into what is currently a massive use of artificial sweeteners.”
Physician Martin Blaser, who directs the Human Microbiome Program at New York University told NPR he found the study exciting because linking artificial sweeteners and gut microbes is a new idea to explore.
James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado is also calling for more research into the link.
“It’s much too early, on the basis of this one study, [to conclude that] artificial sweeteners have negative impacts on humans’ [risk for diabetes],” Hill told NPR.