Written by: Chelsea Haines, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
What was once considered the ultimate swap for diabetics and dieters alike is now being reconsidered as a disruptor of your gut microbiome. Since seeing artificial sweeteners in the headlines with claims of them being carcinogenic and destructive to weight management, diabetes, and gut health, I knew this was a topic I wanted to cover in my blog. The word artificial is scary enough, but we do love that we get some of the sweetness we want without the calories. So, we're left wondering if it's better to be eating sugar or whether the benefits of artificial sweeteners outweigh the potential downfalls. With newer and newer research emerging, let's look at what we know (so far) about artificial sweeteners and gut health: which are safe and whether we be consuming them at all.
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are often grouped into two camps: Nutritive and Non-Nutritive Sweeteners. Both are used as low-caloric/non-caloric replacements for sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks. Let's look at how these two camps differ:
Nutritive sweeteners are technically things like sugar, honey, or coconut sugar. What we're talking about today specifically are substitutes. Sweetness substitutes and nutritive sweeteners would be sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are lower in calories than regular sugar and don't cause a significant spike in blood glucose like sugar does. This is why these remain a popular choice for dieters. Sugar alcohols have some funny names, so when in doubt, the names of these nutritive sweeteners include -ol- in them. Think sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol, and maltitol as examples. These vary from less sweet to just as sweet as sugar. Dentists love them because they do not cause cavities like sugar does.
These are the more common ones on coffee shop tables and in grocery store isles. These are ones like Aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®), Acesulfame-K (Sweet One®, also known as ACE K), Neotame, Saccharin (Sweet'N Low®) These have a similar shape molecularly to sugar, so they fit on sweetness receptors on our tongue, but our bodies cannot break them down and use them as fuel, so they have no calories. Zero calories made them great choices and alternatives for people with diabetes. Studies initially showed that artificial sweeteners also didn't raise blood sugar.
How non-nutritive sweeteners affect our body
Some great news is that soda consumption in the US has decreased in the last two decades. The bad news, however, is that Americans are still consuming a whopping 44 gallons per year. A reason that these became so popular was due to the rise in zero-calorie soda. Maybe it seems too good to be true because it is. While it's still up for debate whether many adverse effects studied are due to the artificial sweeteners themselves or whether these are thanks to the type of lifestyles more likely to reach for diet soda, it is still up for debate in a lot of research. Here's what has been more definitively shown.
Artificial sweeteners and gut health in food choices
Newer studies suggest that although your blood sugar doesn't rise immediately, artificial sweeteners may raise your blood sugar later on. The other potential downfall of sweeteners is how they may trigger your pancreas to secrete insulin to deal with the amount of calories indicated by the sweetness, but that doesn't come. Increased insulin output may increase your appetite for you to eat something to use the insulin. Many epidemiological studies had people reporting they felt hungrier after consuming artificial sweeteners than they did consuming the same amount of calories but excluding the artificial sweetener. These artificial sweeteners can be up to 200% sweeter than sugar. This sweetness impacts our taste buds, making fruits taste less sweet. This double whammy means that we may be getting a glucose spike later, craving and eating more, AND we're more likely to crave processed food to appease the now somewhat sweet drunk taste buds.
Artificial sweeteners and gut health overall
Research from the likes of Harvard (as of 14 August 2023) shows the potential harms of artificial sweeteners being a decline in gut microbiome diversity (this was looking specifically at saccharine, sucralose, and aspartame). Studies also show these sweeteners specifically increase your risk of glucose intolerance. These sweeteners also might increase the population of unfavorable gut bacteria: Enterobacteriaceae and Deltaproteobacteria – These are responsible for various human diseases. However, because a gut microbiome is as unique as a fingerprint, it is also true that different peoples' gut bacteria could respond differently to other artificial sweeteners.
To consume or not to consume?
As always- it depends. Here are some factors to consider in making this decision.
How much are you consuming?
How healthy is your gut microbiome currently?
What is the majority of your diet made up of?
What about"natural" artificial sweeteners and gut health (Stevia and Monk Fruit)?
For my sweet tooth people out there, don't fear; there may be hope! While Stevia studies show that it might impact gut health and appetite, it would have to be in substantial amounts to do so. The jury is still undecided on Monk Fruit as a sweetener, so if this is your preference, follow the same rules of "less is more." Also, note any changes in your appetite after consuming any sweetener since, as mentioned above, every gut microbiome is unique.
What would your gut health coach do?
The underlying takeaway from one of the latest studies is that "consumption of artificial sweeteners might contribute to the development of metabolic derangements that lead to obesity, T2D, and cardiovascular disease". Yikes. And yes, this study included Stevia. After considering all this, I took a step back and thought about what might be best for the body. More calories but not damaging my gut microbiome? Or less calories and a host of potential dangers? I choose health, thank you very much. The study cited above shows how nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols, like xylitol, do NOT negatively impact the gut microbiome. Moreover, they might even act as a prebiotic (feeding your healthy gut bacteria). So, while it has more calories than artificial sweeteners, the benefits seem to outweigh the extra calories.
If health is your primary goal
Suppose calories are not your concern, and it's the healthiest possible option you're after. In that case, honey is not only a prebiotic – it's also an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial agent, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The best option for drinks
The answer seems straightforward. Ditch the daily diet cokes and dive into the real stuff. Remember the days of SodaStream, homemade honey-sweetened ice tea at your grans' house, or even freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast? Effort is in, and your health is worth the effort of swapping your daily diet soda for something equally as delicious but friendly to your gut microbiome. Before I conclude, remember to choose as natural or raw as possible when it comes to honey, as many store-bought options are often "fake honey" fortified with sugar and sugary syrups. The same goes for fruit juices. Even fruit juices that claim "100% fruit juice blend" trick us with the word "blend." Thirdly, when speaking about SodaStream, I do NOT mean the corn syrup mixes; if it's just the bubbles you're after, it's a great choice. Especially when combined with some homemade OJ or homemade iced tea.
Moderation over absolutes
These findings do not mean you can never enjoy a diet soda again. If it is something you love and have in moderation to complement your otherwise whole-food diet, then it isn’t going to cause too much harm. But I hope this article means you'll think twice about how much you're consuming and be open to trying new delicious alternatives. Gone are the days of thinking health and weight loss is a game of calories in vs. calories out. WHAT you eat does matter as much, if not MORE than how much you're eating.
We know that more research is needed on all of this before we can say anything with absolute certainty.
Chelsea Haines, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Recently featured "The Gut Health Coach" by Yahoo!, Chelsea Haines has a unique way of helping high-performers heal. She doesn't claim to know best. Her mission: to remind you that YOU are the expert on your body, only you know precisely what you need, and you are not "crazy" for feeling how you feel. Her expertise stems from personally healing autoimmune disease paired with formal degrees in psychology, gut health, and mindfulness. She’s the Founder of The Gut Health Agency, where a team of health coaches & Registered Dietitians merge health coaching with clinical testing for increased patient compliance and lasting habit change ‒ a needle-moving combination not otherwise seen in the gut health space.