It has long been established that excess sugar intake — especially in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages — leads to an increased risk of diabetes and other health problems. Sugar consumption has also been linked to increased caloric intake, and it can raise blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.
To help reduce their sugar consumption, many people turn to beverages and certain foods that contain zero-calorie sweeteners. These ingredients, which include both artificial sweeteners and naturally derived sugar alternatives, have seen growing popularity in recent decades — yet a new study shows that they may be harmful to your health in many of the same ways as sugar.
Lab rats and cell cultures — and you?
For this study — presented in late April at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting — researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, both in Milwaukee, examined the impact of both sugars and artificial sweeteners in rats as well as cultured cells. The rats used in the experiment were bred to be susceptible to diabetes and other metabolic problems.
The researchers were interested in examining the effects of both sugar and artificial sweeteners on endothelial cells, which form a lining on the inside of your blood vessels. Changes in how these cells function have been implicated in diabetes, obesity, and other cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.
When rat endothelial cells were exposed to high levels of glucose, they soon showed signs of impaired function. Cells exposed to two artificial sweeteners — aspartame and acesulfame potassium — also showed signs of dysfunction, but gene expression tests indicated that the exact mechanisms behind the dysfunction were different.
Actual living rats were also divided into groups and given a diet high in either glucose or fructose (different types of sugar, which join together to form sucrose, or table sugar) or aspartame or acesulfame potassium. After three weeks, the blood samples from the rats showed significant differences in levels of fats, amino acids, and other indicators of metabolic dysfunction and disease.
Lessons for humans
There’s every reason to believe that the negative changes seen in this study’s rats apply to humans, according to lead researcher Brian Hoffmann, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University.
“We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar,” Hoffmann notes. “It is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down.” But substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar, he notes, leads to negative changes in how fat and energy are used in the body.
So what should you do in response to this knowledge? “If you chronically consume these foreign substances, as with sugar, the risk of negative health outcomes increases,” Hoffmann notes. So if you can’t completely cut both added sugars and artificial sweeteners out of your diet, at least try to reduce your intake of both, rather than substitute one for the other.
“I like to tell people, moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet,” says Hoffman.
Want to learn about more recent diabetes research? Read “Introducing the ‘Sugar Sponge’ for Diabetes,” “How Estrogen Therapy Might Reduce Type 2 Diabetes Risk,” and “Rheumatoid Arthritis and Type 2 Diabetes Risk.”