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Artificial Sweeteners: Bad For Your Blood Sugar?

Sugar substitute pills on a spoon.

Many use artificial sweeteners to avoid weight gain or to fight diabetes. But new research suggests the opposite effect.  

A study published in the journal Nature shows the impact of artificial sweeteners on gut bacteria can raise blood sugar levels and contribute to obesity and diabetes.

Dr. Luis Meneghini heads the Global Diabetes Program for Parkland Hospital System. In this edition of Vital Signs, he talked about the potential of the results.

From Dr. Meneghini’s interview…

What do the results mean? "For example, there are individuals that tend to gain more weight, or less weight, when exposed to fatty foods. Part of the explanation may lie in the type of gut bacteria that the individual has or how that gut bacteria’s changed by food intake. So, while it doesn’t answer our questions about whether artificial sweeteners are safe, it does give us pause to think about whether they are safe in certain individuals."

Should diabetics stay away from artificial sweeteners?  "If you have diabetes, you have difficulty processing sugar, glucose. If I take someone with diabetes who has very little insulin production and give him a can of regular soda, their blood sugar after that soda’s going to be substantially higher than if I give him a can of diet soda. So, for individuals with diabetes they not only have to consider the longer term effects of these sweeteners, whether they increase weight or insulin resistance, but they also have to deal with the immediate consequences of taking a sugar load – that if it’s not matched to, for example, a drug or insulin – could cause their blood sugars to go up and that has long term consequences."

Should non-diabetics be concerned? "It’s an area we clearly need more investigation and study on, and I would suspect it’s a very, very hot area in terms of medicine because it’s not only with diabetes and obesity, but there’s a lot of interest in looking at gut bacteria and how it might affect disease and how we might be able to develop therapies to actually treat disease."

For more information:

Study in Nature

Sugar Substitutes, Gut Bacteria, and Glucose Intolerance

Pros and Cons of Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes

American Diabetes Association

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.