Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes with sweet taste and a low or no amount of calories. They are perceived as a marvel for individuals having diabetes who do not tolerate glucose, but want to eat something sweet. With the advancement in food industry, there is an explosive increase in artificial sweetener production and consumption at a very high rate. Some of the commonly used sweeteners are saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium; saccharin being the oldest one, marketed in 1879. They are being consumed at very high rates and are used in food items as well as beverages.
Scientific findings show surprising results as some studies show weight gain in individuals using artificial sweeteners.
There is also an increasing trend of AS use in non-diabetic people. But little is known about their impact on health. ‘Sweet taste without calories’ seems great for satisfying one’s sweet-tooth without guilt but the impact is ‘not so sweet’. They are hazardous as they develop metabolic degradation that leads to obesity, diabetes mellitus (Type 2) and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).
Weight conscious people often use them since there are little or no calories in them. The idea of getting thin and smart or to maintain weight occupy them to such an extent that they consider artificial sweeteners a healthy and wonderful substitute for sugar. But are they really beneficial for weight reduction?
They are being consumed at very high rates and are used in food items as well as beverages.
Scientific findings show surprising results as some studies show weight gain in individuals using artificial sweeteners. Various studies show increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference with the prolonged use of AS.
Sweet taste increases appetite and causes heightened motivation to eat. Appetite is under the control of hypothalamus (brain part) which mediates food reward pathway (FRP) by secreting neuropeptides (protein like communication molecules) to regulate energy balance and feeding behaviour. Evidence suggests that the FRP is not activated by AS in the same manner as natural sweeteners. AS, providing sweetness without caloric content, partially activate FRP rather than completely. FRP normally has 2 components; hedonic/sensory and post-ingestive. AS causes activation of the hedonic component only, which is the main contributor of raised appetite and eventually results in obesity which is one of the risk factors of diabetes and CVDs.
AS also affects gut microbiota (microbes reside in human gastrointestinal tract (GIT)) which are essential for health and GIT homeostasis. Suez J. et al in their research study conducted at Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel found that saccharin, sucralose and aspartame induced changes in gut microbes and impaired glucose tolerance. Alteration of gut microbes leads to development of numerous metabolic diseases.
‘Sweet taste without calories’ seems great for satisfying one’s sweet-tooth without guilt but the impact is ‘not so sweet’.
A link between AS and cancer has also been found by a study in which a high dose of aspartame in rats induced lymphomas and leukemia (cancer of blood cells). Saccharin is also associated with the urinary bladder cancer in rats. The carcinogenic effect is mainly due to the suppression of apoptosis (programmed cell death) by down regulation of tumour suppressor gene p53. Moreover, AS up regulates anti-apoptotic gene, potentially slowing down apoptotic process and hence, causes cancer.
AS have their adverse effects as shown by the neurophysiological symptoms including headache, migraine, anxiety, depression and insomnia, which is mainly due to the production of free radicals by AS degradation. Excess free radicals are chemical stressors which affect neurons and in this way lead to neurobehavioral problems.
Such findings strike a need of thorough evaluation of AS impacts along with their limited use.
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