On the heels of the media coverage of the possible health benefits of a diet low in carbohydrates comes new research into the biological effects of artificial sweeteners. It's hard to resist the urge to magnify a study that supports one's beliefs into gospel, but an eye on any research needs objectivity. Whether or not you agree with the results of a study, all research has utility and limitations.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals manufactured and used for two reasons. The first is that they are very sweet, many times sweeter than sugar, meaning they have a much more powerful effect on human sweet taste buds. Second, they are chemicals humans cannot digest and absorb. Thus, they have no calories.
In essence, artificial sweeteners trick the body into perceiving sweet taste without providing any energy or nutrition, an apparent boon for a society bent on losing weight but maintaining pleasure.
In this study, newborn mice either drank water with various artificial sweeteners or with sugar. Simply put, the results revealed that baby mice exposed to sweeteners showed signs of glucose intolerance while the mice which drank sugar water did not.
Glucose intolerance is a metabolic precursor to diabetes. The hallmark of Type II diabetes is an inability to maintain normal blood glucose levels. The body has to manage an intricate balance between absorbing food from the stomach while releasing energy to organs all while keeping blood glucose levels within a narrow range. When this system malfunctions, diabetes ensues with the initial sign of elevated blood sugar followed by the many medical repercussions that come with the illness.
With no other interfering factors, it appears that the exposure to artificial sweeteners had a part in causing glucose intolerance in these baby mice. This is the first study to convincingly show any possible linkage between diabetes and artificial sweeteners.
The theory behind this result reinforces the idea that tricking our bodies to eat processed food is replete with dangers. Stimulating our taste buds begins a process of synchronized reactions in the body: preparation in the stomach and intestines for food, secretion of digestive enzymes, shunting of blood to the gastrointestinal system to absorb food and many more.
If this reaction is triggered routinely but then leads to no actual needed digestion, the theory suggests it would have an impact on our biological function. In this case, that means management of blood glucose levels goes awry.
The study then continues to try to suggest these findings apply to people as well. This part of the study was less conclusive and in many ways secondary to the initial study.
The most significant limitation of this study is how it applies to people. Mice may be mammals, but a study like this only makes it clear similar research needs to be performed on humans rather than proof we should all stop using artificial sweeteners.
Developing research to show long-term harm from these chemicals in people will be much more challenging. One cannot use human babies as experimental subjects as one can use baby mice.
As with all research, the conclusions are interesting and thought-provoking but still leaves each of us with personal decisions about how to use artificial sweeteners.