New study finds sugar substitutes just as bad as real thing for metabolic disorders

Consuming artificial sweeteners could increase, rather than prevent, the risk of diabetes, according to new overseas research.

But New Zealand academics are quick to warn that this does not mean sugar is better, and say the best way to reduce sugar intake is by using healthier alternatives such as water, milk and fruit.

Researchers at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have found using non-caloric artificial sweeteners can lead to glucose intolerance and altered blood glucose levels, which can ultimately lead to the development of diabetes. The study was published in science journal Nature this week.

Artificial sweeteners are commonly used in diet soft drinks and sugar-free desserts. They are often used for weight loss programmes and the prevention of metabolic disorders such as glucose intolerance and diabetes.


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Assistant Professor Eran Elinav spent two and half years testing exposure to artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame and sucralose on mice and 400 people and found a link to glucose intolerance and raised blood sugar levels.

In the final stage of the study, seven volunteers who did not usually use sweeteners were given the daily allowed dose of saccharin for five days and the researchers observed higher blood sugar levels and negative effects on the composition of gut microbes.

But Otago University professor of human nutrition and medicine Jim Mann said the study did not prove non-caloric sweeteners were "unsafe and useless" and indicated more research needed to be done into them.

"No, this doesn't mean you should go and eat sugar because if you take sugar-sweetened beverages - which is the main thing people are on about that we should cut down - the main alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages is not beverages with non-caloric sweeteners. The main alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages if you are thirsty should be water, milk and dilute fruit juice."

Professor Mann said there had been a lot of theories about artificial sweeteners over the years including that saccharin caused bladder cancer, which was later disproved.

Auckland University of Technology professor of nutrition Elaine Rush said people should limit their exposure to artificial sweeteners, as well as alcohol and caffeine as they all affected how people functioned and microbes were important in young immune systems.


Q. What are artificial sweeteners?


Synthetic sugar substitutes which can be derived from natural substances and are often sweeter than sugar itself. Often used by diabetics because they do not tend to raise blood sugar levels and for weight control because they have few or no calories.

Q. What about sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate obtained from various plants, especially sugar cane and sugar beet, made mainly from sucrose and used as a sweetener in food and drink.

Q. What did the study find?
The Weizmann Institute of Science study tested artificial sweeteners, including saccharin, aspartame and sucralose, on mice and 400 humans over two and a half years. It found a link between consuming artificial sweeteners and glucose intolerance and elevated blood sugar levels, which can ultimately lead to diabetes.

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