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Will a Sugar Substitute Harm Your Health?

The sugar substitute sucralose may alter the balance of intestinal bacteria in ways that promote inflammation. It might also promote metabolic syndrome.

The safety of artificial sweeteners has been fairly controversial. The FDA and the food industry maintains that these products are safe. On the other hand, epidemiological studies show that people who consume these sweeteners are more likely to develop Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel condition. New research suggests that the sugar substitute sucralose, sold as Splenda, might pose problems for people with Crohn’s disease. Another study hints that it might incline people towards metabolic syndrome.

Sugar Substitute and Bacterial Overgrowth:

For this research, investigators selected mice with a genetic susceptibility to intestinal inflammation similar to Crohn’s (Rodriguez-Palacios et al, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, March 15, 2018). The animals drank water laced with Splenda. A control group of healthy mice also drank water containing sucralose.

The sugar substitute promoted bacterial overgrowth of E. coli and other organisms in the phylum Proteobacteria. In addition, the bacteria were better able to burrow into the wall of the intestine and promote inflammation. However, only the mice genetically programmed to develop a Crohn’s-like condition reacted in this way. The scientists did not see changes in the intestinal microbes of the control group.

How Will This Sugar Substitute Affect Humans with Crohn’s Disease?

Scientists don’t yet know whether sucralose and maltodextrin, another ingredient in the sugar substitute Splenda, would promote bacterial overgrowth in people with Crohn’s disease. Nonetheless, about 10 to 15 percent of such patients report that their clinical symptoms get worse when they consume artificial sweeteners.

Sugar Substitute May Predispose People to Metabolic Syndrome:

In a separate study presented at The Endocrine Society’s annual meeting (Chicago, March 20, 2018), scientists found that stem cells from human fat reacted to sucralose in alarming ways. The investigators took samples of fat from 18 individuals and exposed them to various concentrations of the compound. These stem cells from fat responded to sucralose with greater activity in genes used to generate more fat. The higher the concentration, the more genes were turned on.

Some fat samples were taken from volunteers who were overweight or obese. These stem cells had even more fat-related genes that became active, especially at the highest concentration of sucralose. Genes used to transport glucose were also upregulated.

The Effects of Sucralose in People:

The results from the laboratory studies support what researchers found when they administered sucralose to the participants. Obese volunteers who consumed this artificial sweetener had an increased insulin response. All the volunteers who consumed sucralose had higher triglyceride values afterwards. The scientists say that people prone to diabetes should avoid sugar-sweetened drinks, but no one should assume that artificially sweetened drinks are completely safe. It appears that sucralose might trigger inflammation that could be deleterious for people at risk of diabetes.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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