After the Children of Israel were delivered from the hands of the ancient Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds and complained that the water was too bitter to drink, the prophet Moshe threw a piece of wood into it, making it sweet.
Today, there is a cornucopia of sugar, honey, corn and date syrup and other natural sweeteners to make what we eat and drink more palatable – but these carbohydrates have made people around the world fat and even obese. They and diabetics who must limit their intake of glucose were overjoyed when in 1879, saccharin – the first artificial sweetener – was accidentally synthesized and found to be sweet (albeit with a bitter aftertaste); it was followed in the second half of the 20th century with numerous others, from aspartame to sucralose. These have a few or even zero calories. Now, they said, “we can eat sweet things without worrying.”
But alas, this proved too good to be true. Except for stevia – a green-leaved plant that has been widely used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries and was adopted in the Western world in the last few decades – artificial sweeteners have in recent years been suspected of being harmful. Some of them have been accused of causing cancer, making people eat even more and causing diabetes, but research has not been absolutely conclusive.
Now, scientists in Israel (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba) and Singapore (Nanyang Technological University) have shown in a new published scientific paper that six artificial sweeteners and sports supplements are toxic to beneficial digestive microbes in the intestines.
Gut bacteria are an important component of the microbiota ecosystem in the human gut, which is colonized by many trillions of microbes – even 10 times more than the number of human cells in the body. According to researchers in a 2015 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, intestinal bacteria play an important role in human health, such as supplying essential nutrients, synthesizing vitamin K, aiding in the digestion of cellulose and promoting the formation of new blood vessels and the function of nerves in the gastric system.
However, they can also be potentially harmful due to the change of their composition when the gut ecosystem undergoes abnormal changes through the use of antibiotics, illness, stress, aging, bad dietary habits and lifestyle. When gut bacteria are destroyed, many chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer and obesity can result.
Just appearing in the journal Molecules, the Israel-Singapore collaborative study found fault with aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame and acesulfame potassium-k), as well as with 10 sport supplements containing these artificial sweeteners. The bacteria found in the digestive system (such as E. coli) had a toxic response when exposed to concentrations of only one milligram per milliliter of the artificial sweeteners.
“We modified bioluminescent E. coli bacteria, which luminesce when they detect toxicants and act as a sensing model representative of the complex microbial system,” said Prof. Ariel Kushmaro of the biotechnology engineering department of Ben-Gurion University, who is also a member of the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev. “This is further evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners adversely affects gut microbial activity, which can cause a wide range of health issues.”
Artificial sweeteners are used in countless food products and soft drinks with reduced sugar content. Many people consume this added ingredient in various foods and even toothpastes without even being aware of it. Moreover, artificial sweeteners have been identified as emerging environmental pollutants and can be found in drinking and surface water, as well as groundwater aquifers.
Currently, the authors wrote, there is still no consensus regarding the health consequences of artificial sweeteners intake, as they have not been fully investigated.
The bioluminescent bacteria, which light up when they detect toxicants, act as a sensing model representative of the complex microbial system. Toxic effects were found when the bacteria were exposed to certain concentrations of the artificial sweeteners.
For decades, the food, beverage and other industries have used artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes for those who are diabetic and/or obese. Industries, they continued, highlight the beneficial aspects of artificial sweeteners’ use, such as tooth “friendliness,” increased quality of life for diabetics and weight control. But, in addition to the environmental pollution issues, there has been much evidence about the possible negative impact sugar substitutes contribute to human health.
Yet, the total consumption of artificial sweeteners in foods has only increased among people of all ages, with 28% of the total population consuming them. “For the consumers’ safety, it is necessary to control the content of sweeteners in foods,” they wrote.
The US Food and Drug Authority has approved the use of the six artificial sweeteners studied, and the European Union food authorities also okayed them. Artificial sweeteners provide a sweeter taste than sugar and also enhance food flavor, while contributing very little to energy intake.
Professional and amateur athletes, who devote much care to their diets, often take sport supplements to improve their physical performance in training and competitions. In several registered products’ patents, it is clearly stated that artificial sweeteners are added to electrolyte drinks and food supplements. As a result, the researchers continued, “the average consumption of artificial sweeteners is higher in athletes and any potential health risks involved would also be more significant.”