Can Artificial Sweeteners Cause High Fat Storage in the Body?
Long-term use of artificial sweeteners can lead to higher storage of adipose tissue around the abdomen.
In particular, aspartame, saccharin, and diet beverages can lead to fat stores in the body.
The potential connection between sweeteners and cardiovascular health could drive the need for safer alternatives.
While artificial sweeteners are a common feature of drinks, yogurts, candy, breakfast cereals, and even gum—researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health have discovered a link between these sugar substitutes and a higher risk of excess fat storage.
The study "showed that habitual, long-term intake of total and individual artificial sweetener intakes are related to greater volumes of adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat," said Brian Steffen, PhD, MSCR, a professor in the Department of Surgery at the U of M Medical School and co-investigator on the funded grant.
This isn’t the first time artificial sweetener safety has been called into question. In the past, these flavorings have been connected to increased chances of bladder proliferation, and raised glucose and insulin levels which can be harmful to patients with difficulties controlling blood sugar.
In this article, we’ll be examining the findings of the artificial sweetener study and the potential risks for high-fat deposits in the body.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are sugar alternatives present in a number of dietary, medicinal, and hygiene products.
Otherwise known as non-nutritive, low-calorie, sugar-free, or intense sweeteners, these substitutes are believed to hold a considerable edge over sugar by providing similar levels of sweetness despite having fewer calories. Added to their appeal are claims that these sweeteners are not only safe for consumption by those with blood sugar concerns, but can also promote weight loss efforts.
Common artificial sweetener agents like aspartame, saccharine, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame-K, and stevia are approved for use in the US.
However, this study highlights that sweetener safety may not be a closed conversation. "This is an especially timely study, given the World Health Organization's recent warning of the potential health risks of aspartame," said Lyn Steffen, PhD, MPH, a professor in the School of Public Health and principal investigator on the study.
In the United States, options such as alitame are prohibited for supposed carcinogenic properties. Similarly, another sweetener—cyclate, is not approved for use due to potential links to cognitive disabilities in people with the genetic condition phenylketonuria (PKU).
How do Artificial Sweeteners Work?
Artificial sweeteners have an intense sweetness that compares to, and can sometimes even exceed sugar. As mentioned, these sweeteners have the added benefit of lower calories, raising questions about how these chemical compounds achieve this effect.
When you taste something sweet, your taste buds—specialized sensory organs on the tongue and parts of your throat—alert you to this sensation. These buds are made up of taste receptor cells, or simply taste cells.
Among these cells are sweet receptor cells, designed to recognize sweet molecules when you put a sweetener or other sweet substance into your mouth.
The molecules from this sweet substance then bind to receptors on the taste receptor cells, initiating a series of chemical signals, which can change, depending on the sweetener taken—which is where things get interesting.
When consuming a sweetener like sucrose, its molecules bind to sweet receptors in the tongue, communicating this taste to the brain, before the sweetener is metabolized by enzymes in the mouth and digestive system to release energy.
In contrast, saccharin undergoes a different process. Because of its molecular structure, this sweetener is not only sweeter than sucrose, but can pass through the body without being metabolized, meaning no calories are released following consumption. However, since the taste receptors can trigger the release of insulin and the body then expects calories from a sweet food, imbalances can occur in metabolism and energy compartmentalization.
Artificial sweeteners may or may not be subject to normal pathways that produce energy for the body, leading to their descriptions as low calorie sugar substitutes.
What is the Connection between Sweeteners and Higher Fat Storage in the Body?
Artificial sweeteners have gained popularity as safe and effective sugar substitutes. However, certain qualities have raised questions on the widespread preference of these artificial options over sugar.
For instance, users have often commented on the sweetness intensity, persistence of the sweet taste, feeling of a coating on teeth, and unpleasant aftertaste of certain sweeteners. However, these mild effects may be overshadowed by findings linking artificial sweeteners in drinks, beverages, and other products to negative health consequences.
In a study examining links between artificial sweeteners and fat formation in the body, tests carried out on mouse and human receptor cells revealed that the introduction of higher concentrations of saccharin stimulated the production of fat tissues in the body. This effect can lead to challenges to heart and brain health, plus potentially dangerous blood sugar levels in users.
These connections are particularly concerning, noting that the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association have previously recommended artificial sweeteners as suitable sugar replacements.
When you build a habit of taking low calorie drinks, or other artificially sweetened products, studies show that there is an increased risk of impaired heart function.
But while these links have been observed, it isn’t very clear how artificial sweeteners harm your health. Experts suggest that artificial sweeteners can trigger inflammation in the body. Others assume that these chemicals can alter normal metabolic processes, raising the risks of health challenges in regular users.
Artificial sweetener consumption may also impact the gut microbiome, affecting healthy gut bacteria that keep digestion intact. Similarly, there are suggestions that artificial sweeteners can impact blood sugar and pressure levels.
Underscoring these risks is a largescale research study carried out on over 100,000 participants. In this study, participants who consumed soft drinks, tabletop sweeteners, dairy-based foods and other products containing artificial sweeteners were at a higher risk of major heart-related conditions.
Recognizing the lurking dangers artificial sweetener use can pose to the population, Lyn Steffen, PhD, MPH, added: "These findings underscore the importance of finding alternatives to artificial sweeteners in foods and beverages, especially since these added sweeteners may have negative health consequences."
Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners?
At first glance, artificial sweeteners appear as the most ideal alternative to sugar—fewer calories, without compromising on the sweetness provided by natural sugars.
However, with the potential to cause serious harm, it’s important to consider whether artificial sweeteners are a safe sugar substitute for frequent users.
While research remains underway to properly understand the safety of artificial sweeteners, it may be wise to moderate your consumption to align with your health goals, preferences, and any existing health conditions.
This is not to say all artificial sweeteners pose a health risk. For instance, while this study identified dangers in long term consumption of aspartame, saccharin and diet beverages, there were no noticeable challenges with sucralose, another popular artificial sweetener. The debate on artificial sweeteners isn’t likely to be concluded any time soon, so make your decisions on using artificial sweeteners based on your lifestyle preferences and any new data as it becomes available.
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