There are ideas, which become so ingrained that we lose the ability to question them. This is a problem because much of what we believe today turns out to be wrong. And if we are not questioning then there is no progress.
On one hand this has never been easier due to technology and the ability for ideas to spread. On the other there is the increasingly shrill dogma of “experts” who seek to shut down any heresy against what is current thinking.
Artificial sweeteners are assumed to be helpful for those seeking to control or lose weight.
It makes sense. Rather than consume a can of soft drink (soda), which has over 150 calories, you can have the same taste with no calories.
Low calorie drinks became popular in the 1980’s when marketers figured out that they could sell more soft drinks by having them without calories. This would appeal to the weight conscious who might not normally buy soft drinks. It would also appeal to those on diets who might otherwise stop buying soft drinks.
Sweeteners serve no purpose within the human body. Whilst not toxic (and no it is not like formaldehyde) the only reason they are put into foods is to provide taste. Low calorie soft drinks are essentially artificially coloured and flavoured water.
So they have been seen as harmless at worst and healthy at best. But there has never been a fundamental assessment of their effects on the body, until now.
Researchers in Israel looked at the effect of sweeteners on the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. They found that artificial sweeteners could disrupt our ability to do this and that the changes in our metabolism can eventually lead to diabetes.
How can that be? Surely replacing sugar reduces the likelihood of diabetes.
Previous studies have been contradictory. They also have been observational looking at “links” between consumption of sweeteners and rates of obesity and diabetes. No causal link was ever explored.
This new research in both mice and humans was revolutionary. It looked at the effects of sweeteners on the bacteria in our guts. Mice who were fed sweeteners developed glucose intolerance and had a changed gut micobiome. When fed antibiotics to eliminate the bacteria in the gut, the glucose intolerance abated.
The thesis was tested in reverse with the same effects seen.
Human volunteers were given sweeteners over a short period of time. They too showed early signs of impaired glucose metabolism, after one week! The gut bacteria of people who did and did not regularly consume sweeteners were anaylsed and were found to be different. There was a correlation between glucose intolerance and sweetener consumption in 381 non-diabetic study volunteers.
Any one of the findings above does not prove much. Taken together they paint a clear picture. Artificial sweeteners somehow affect the bacteria in our gut. In turn this disturbance affects our metabolism of glucose. Over the long term this may lead to diabetes.
Separate work is showing that there may be connections between weight and the bacteria in our gut.
There is one other aspect to remember in all this. Every time we have a course of antibiotics we damage the bacteria in our gut. The notion of a course of antibiotics taken “just in case” doing no harm is wrong. Antibiotics should only be used when there is an actual bacterial (NOT viral) infection. Hence never in cold or flu like illnesses.
There have also been studies showing links (so no causal effect) between childhood obesity and courses of antibiotics. When you factor in this new finding about the role of gut bacteria in metabolism this too makes sense.
Sweeteners serve no purpose other than to provide sweetness without calories. It seems like a free lunch. But not surprisingly there is no such thing as a free lunch. The best drink to have is water. If you want some sweetness have real sugar but not that much and not that often.
Being healthy is never difficult when you stick to the basics.