The People’s Land

Sweeteners: Different Effects in Different People?

To start an impassioned discussion on nutrition is easy. Bring up non-nutritive sweeteners. Some people see them as a plague in the food supply. Others insist upon evidence to back up such dire claims and can see only fragments propping up presumptions about harms that are yet to be documented. But once again, a study of sweeteners is sparking a lively discussion. Researchers in Israel present data that tells them these sweeteners have distinctly different metabolic effects in different people because of different effects on their microbiomes. Writing in Cell, they conclude:

“Collectively, human non-nutritive sweetener consumption may induce person-specific, microbiome-dependent glycemic alterations, necessitating future assessment of clinical implications.”

We translate these words to simply mean maybe there’s an unwanted effect for some people that might have an implication for their health. But we need a clinical study of health outcomes to show if this is true.

An RCT of 120 Healthy People for Two Weeks

The study in Cell, by Jotham Suez et al, was a randomized controlled trial of 120 healthy persons who never consume these artificial sweeteners. Researchers randomly assigned them to six different groups receiving sachets of saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, stevia, glucose, or nothing. They measured the effects on glycemic responses and the microbiome of these subjects – oral and stools. In these small samples of people they found changes in their microbiomes following consumption of all four sweeteners. They also found changes in glycemic responses for the saccharin and sucralose groups.

But these are small groups of healthy persons consuming these sweeteners for a short time. So there’s no data here on meaningful clinical effects. Just clues to fuel further investigations by people who suspect there must be something wrong with consuming these sweeteners.

Strong Feelings, Mixed Findings

For a bit more perspective, it’s worth reading a review by Valerie Harrington and colleagues of the the conflicting data about the interactions of these sweeteners with the microbiome and metabolic health. They tell us that the scientific literature remains inconclusive. Yet, they note that because of unresolved questions, some health authorities recommend caution.

As with any question of dietary and metabolic health, we have little doubt that different people will experience different effects from consuming these sweeteners. Some may simply not like them. We are diverse in our tastes and our physiology. Further research will surely bring us more insights.

Meanwhile, we have to make the best decisions we can based on facts and personal preferences. For people who can’t tolerate or don’t like non-nutritive sweeteners, avoiding them is a fine choice. However, health policy should be informed by more than speculation and personal biases. Broad recommendations to avoid sweeteners seems to be more about stirring fear and doubt than promoting health.

Click here for the new Suez paper, here for the Harrington review, and here for further perspective.

The People’s Land, painting by Boris Grigoriev / WikiArt

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August 23, 2022