Health Update: Results Of The Latest Face-Off Between Artificial Sweetener and Sugar

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There’s been another study on the effects of sugar versus artificial sweeteners. The contestants this time? Researchers chose to study the traditional sugars glucose and fructose against artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame potassium.

Aspartame is what you’ll fine in packets of Equal or Nutrasweet, and you’ll fine acesulfame potassium in Sweet One or Sunett (check out the list of widely-used artificial sweeteners here).

The purpose

The researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin wanted to find out what the deal is with artificial sweeteners. The artificial sweetener business is booming, but so is obesity and type 2 diabetes. Lead researcher, Dr. Brian Hoffman, told the press, “Despite the addition of these non-caloric artificial sweeteners to our everyday diets, there has still been a drastic rise in obesity and diabetes.”

Are artificial sweeteners part of the problem?

The process

There were two parts of the experiment, one that tested the effect of artificial sweeteners versus sugar on live rats (in vivo), and another that used test tubes (in vitro) to see the effects of artificial sweeteners versus sugar on the lining of the rats’ blood vessels.

In the test-tube experiment, the goal was to see if artificial sweeteners would affect the blood vessels the same way as hyperglycemia. Chronic hyperglycemia caused by diabetes contributes to the development of neuropathy, heart disease, and eye complications.

The findings

Both the traditional sugars and artificial sweeteners affected glycosylation, the process of sugar molecules attaching to protein cells and affecting their ability to function properly. This process causes advanced glycosylation end products (AGEs) that wreak all sorts of havoc on our body. AGEs are a normal part of the aging process (yes, seriously), but diabetes and high blood sugar can speed up the process.

Both types of the sweet stuff seemed to negatively affect blood vessels, but “through very different mechanisms,” according to Dr. Brian Hoffman. The conclusion is interesting, but not exactly illuminating.

For the in vivo experiment, groups of rats were given high doses of glucose, fructose, aspartame, or acesulfame potassium. All the rats experienced negative effects on their fat concentrations and amino acids. The processing of fats and proteins was affected in all four groups.

The rats were given high doses of whatever type of the sweet stuff they were chosen for, and all four diets had negative consequences—hardly shocking. “We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down. We also observed that replacing these sugars with non-caloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism,” Dr. Hoffman said.

The conclusion

So then… which is better for us? Or at least less bad?

The experiment did not provide a clear answer. Chronically consuming sugar or artificial sweeteners can produce poor health outcomes, and it’s not clear if the amount given to the rats correlates with the proportial amounts that humans would consume.

“As with other dietary components, I like to tell people moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet,” Dr. Hoffman said.

This study was the most extensive to date (as of April 2018) regarding biochemical changes caused by sugar versus sweetener. We were hoping for clearer conclusions, but both sugar and fake sugar seem to be linked to obesity and other negative health outcomes. The exact processes by which the damage is done are not the same, but the results are certainly similar.

It appears that the pillars of good nutrition remain constant: use moderation, focus on fruits and vegetables, and reduce sweets—regardless of where the sweetness comes from.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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