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Artificial sweeteners can damage blood vessels

We know that sugar, when consumed in large quantities, affects health in many ways. A recent study showed that artificial sweeteners can have similar effects, but through completely different biochemical pathways.

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In recent years, excessive sugar intake has been linked to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – conditions that are now strongly linked to sugar overconsumption.

As this rumor of sugar prevailed, artificial sweeteners found ground to become more popular.

Today, tens of thousands of products include artificial sweeteners, making them one of the most popular food additives in the world. With zero calories, they make diet drinks and low calorie snacks sweet enough for even the most demanding consumers to enjoy.

But, as is often said, “what shines is not gold”. Increasingly, studies are being published that tarnish the image of artificial sweeteners. There is now evidence that consuming large amounts of these chemicals could also lead to obesity and metabolic disorders.

The findings were presented at the Experimental Biology 2018 conference in San Diego, California.

Lead researcher was Brian Hoffmann, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Marquette University and the Wisconsin Medical College in Milwaukee.

A fresh look at sweeteners

Hoffmann explains why he is interested in this subject, saying: “Despite the addition of these non-calorie artificial sweeteners to our daily diet, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity and diabetes.”

This study investigates the biochemical changes caused by artificial sweeteners in the body. To achieve this level of detail, they used a technique called high-efficiency metabolomics.

Metabolomics refers to the study of the products of metabolism in cells, tissues and animals.

They wanted to understand how sugar and sweeteners affect the lining of blood vessels – the vascular endothelium – in both cell cultures and rats.

Thus, they focused on two sugars (glucose and fructose) and the zero calorie sweeteners aspartame and potassium acesulfame. To compare similarly sweet but calorie-opposed compounds, they were fed to rats and evaluated after 3 weeks.

Interestingly, the experiments revealed that sugar and artificial sweeteners both weakened the way blood vessels functioned. However, these failures occurred in different ways.

“In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners appear to show negative effects associated with obesity and diabetes, through very different mechanisms.”

-Brian Hoffmann, Ph.D.

The authors conclude that the vascular changes they observed “may be significant in the onset and progression of diabetes and obesity.”

Biochemical changes

Both sugar and artificial sweeteners have led to changes in the levels of fats, amino acids and other chemicals in rat blood. In particular, artificial sweeteners seemed to change the way the body processes fat and gets its energy.

Further studies will be needed to determine what these changes may mean in the long run.

Potassium sweetener acesulfame has also been found to accumulate slowly in the body. At higher concentrations, the damage to the blood vessels was more severe.

“We have noticed that when consumed in moderation, the body has the mechanisms for managing sugar. “When the system is overloaded for a long time, then the mechanism collapses,” explains Hoffmann.

“We have also observed that replacing these sugars with non-calorie artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat metabolism and energy.”

The question we all want to answer is “which is safer, sugar or sweeteners”? But, of course, when it comes to our internal chemistry, nothing is so clear. As Hoffmann puts it, “it’s not that simple to say ‘stop using artificial sweeteners’ and that will be the key to solving the health problems associated with diabetes and obesity.”

But Hoffmann warns, “If you consume these foreign substances (as well as sugar) for years, the risk of adverse health effects increases.”

Once again, moderation seems to be the best course of action.