The People's Perspective on Medicine

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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I am in total agreement with the commenters who ask about Stevia!!! I, too, use only Stevia and feel it is much less “damaging” than the others. HOWEVER, there’s never anything written about it! WHY??????

Here’s the situation in question: You read that “regular” artificial sweeteners, by their taste on the tongue I guess, give the body an “alert” that sweetness is coming. The body then sends out certain enzymes (or other chemicals) to process sugar, which the body assumes the sweetness is gonna be. But when it’s NOT sugar, those chemicals can, all by themselves, cause damage in the body because they’re not utilized. If this is absolutely true across the board, then Stevia would be as bad as the others (sigh!).

But still, the studies that decry use of artificial sweeteners ALWAYS cite the chemical ones, not Stevia! Again, why?

AND, what about if you have something with a little sugar and a little Stevia in it? This is often the case. And if sugar is so bad, how does it do its damage if the “enzymes” that’re sent out to process it do so without interference? Obviously, then, there’s a DIFFERENT mechanism of action that accounts for the damage wrought by sugar itself?

Aside from sucralose and maltodextrin, what are your views on xylitol (Spry gum), stevia, and Erythritol in “moderation”?
Thank you, Barbara

The information you provide has been very helpful to me, thank you

It’s difficult, but we should also fight our addiction to sugar. While sugar is a type of food, that’s not why we eat it, we eat it because it tastes good. And often because of emotional connections from the past, we eat it because it makes us “feel” good.

Thinking about sugar as a type of mild and socially acceptable “drug” may help you avoid rationalizing why you should eat it or eat more than you should.

This article and many similar ones I’ve read in recent years suggest that the best answer to the sugar vs. artificial sweetener dilemma is to lose your sweet tooth. That’s right. To learn to drink coffee black – or with milk, which has its own subtle sweetness due to lactose.
Quitting sweets is difficult for the first few weeks, but you get used to it and will be much better off without anything sweeter than fruit.

I noticed Splenda causing me nausea and stomach pain with use. At first I thought I had a stomach bug, until I realized this had been going on for almost 2 weeks, and I felt fine before I ate/drank something containing Splenda. It’s really tricky because sucralose is in lots of things, so you have to read the entire list of ingredients. I wish it was marked on packages like Nutrasweet is.

I stopped consuming sugar almost 20 years ago, and it was one of the best decisions of my life. People often suggest sugar substitutes, but I have found that by eliminating sugar, my taste buds changed, and I have no desire for that level of sweetness. I understand why we call them “sweet peas,” because they now taste sweet to me.

Are stevia products as suspect as splenda and other sugar substitutes?

I have been told that Stevia is best for you, so that’s all I’ve used for the past few years. Now, I wonder if it’s just as bad as all the rest. Any comments?

These brilliant scientists trashed real butter 50 years ago then apologized after all this time that they were wrong. I don’t trust any of these ‘experts’ anymore. Many will give up their sugar substitutes and get fat, then realize years later that there was no problem with the fake sugar after all.

I substituted Stevia for other sweeteners, but haven’t found a lot of safety information. Do you have any facts on this product?

Only sucralose was mentioned in “Will a sugar substitute harm your health”. How about Stevia in the Raw, Truvia, and Xylitol? These are supposed to be natural. Do you believe that they really are natural?

Thank you for all your work and your informative Newsletters! I know it is very time consuming!

Have there been similar studies with the herb Stevia to see if it has a similar potential for harmful side effects?

Stevia was not mentioned in the article on sugar substitutes, or if it was I missed it.

Stevia was not one of the sweeteners studied. We’ll be watching for research that includes it.

Is this study legitimate? People who drink artificial sweeteners believe that because they are drinking something sugarless so it is okay for them to eat more. I’ve seen peoples’ grocery carts packed full of junk food and pizzas, and then they have diet cokes and, laughingly, Splenda.

I am delighted to see some studies indicate that the occurrence of negative effects from artificial sweeteners may depend upon the individual using them. Use of artificial sweeteners helped me to lose almost 60 pounds almost 60 years ago and have helped me to keep them off. They have never caused me to eat more, crave sweets, develop metabolic syndrome, etc., effects other studies have shown. They actually curb my appetite, and I have no desire whatsoever to eat all those “goodies” many find so irresistible. The suggestion of genetic differences in the effects of artificial sweeteners is interesting and may be an answer other times when people don’t find that studies describe their experiences with foods, drugs, and many other things.

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