Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

The Impact of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners on Health

Many people think that artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners increase the risk of microbiome damage, obesity, and cancer. In this overview, Cliff looks at the evidence for the impact of sweeteners on health.

Key points

  • While there are some associations drawn from observational data between NNS and overweight/obesity, these are not seen in randomised controlled trials
  • It is likely that observational associations between NNS and obesity are due to correlation not causation
  • Non-nutritive sweeteners are not meaningfully associated with negative health outcomes in humans
  • Further research should explore any potential effects on the human microbiome more thoroughly
  • Overall, the moderate use of NNS is unlikely to be of concern for human health outcomes

The topic of artificial, or more commonly called ‘non-nutritive sweeteners’ (as many common sweeteners such as stevia leaf are ‘natural’), and health is a controversial one. Overall, there is no conclusive proof that non-nutritive sweeteners are beneficial to weight management or blood sugar control, but similarly, there is no conclusive evidence that they increase the risk for cancer, diabetes, obesity, or increase habituation to ‘sweetness’,1 claims that are commonly made in popular media.

Some observational studies have suggested an association between NNS consumption and development of metabolic diseases or obesity;2 however, while sweeteners are associated with higher body weight and metabolic disease in observational studies, randomised controlled trials demonstrate that non-nutritive sweeteners may support weight loss, particularly when used alongside behavioural support.3, 4 This suggests that the observed association between sweeteners and obesity is one of correlation, not causation.

The observed association between sweeteners and obesity is one of correlation, not causation.

Similarly, consumption of NNS during childhood and adolescence is associated with significant increase in BMI of around 15% (OR 1.15, 95% CI 1.06-1.25),5, 6 however, this association is unclear as the use of non-nutritive sweeteners is common amongst those with higher BMI wanting to lose weight and there might be a greater effect of ‘sweet’ sensitivity in those with existing or underlying metabolic disorders. Exposure levels to non-nutritive sweeteners may also play a role in their effects on the human body. It has been observed that lower doses of non-nutritive sweeteners are associated with reduced weight gain compared to higher doses (but this result is also unclear and lacking clinical meaningfulness). This review also found no evidence of any effect of sweeteners on overweight or obese adults or children actively trying to lose weight, and in children, a smaller increase in body mass index was observed when sweetener intake was compared with sugar.7

The effect of non-nutritive sweeteners on glucose metabolism is also unclear. Experimental animal studies show that consumption of these can induce glucose intolerance, increase food consumption and weight gain, possibly due to disturbances of the gut microbiome, inhibition of protective intestinal enzymes, and increased appetite. The evidence from human studies is more controversial. Meta-analyses have suggested that non-nutritive sweeteners have little or no effect on blood glucose control in humans,8 and the results of clinical trials are contradictory and are not comparable because of significant differences in methodology.9

Meta-analyses have suggested that non-nutritive sweeteners have little or no effect on blood glucose control in humans

While further research is needed to evaluate the effect of non-nutritive sweeteners on the gut biome (and on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), 10 It has been suggested that they do not lead to clinically relevant changes in gastrointestinal health. In a recent review, Bryant and Mclaughlin, 11  reported that exposure to non-nutritive sweeteners “fails to replicate any of the effects on gastric motility, gut hormones or appetitive responses evoked by caloric sugars.” Likewise, the majority of animal research shows no clinically meaningful changes in gastrointestinal hormones associated with taste receptor activation by ‘sweet’ and furthermore, research demonstrates that overall, non-nutritive sweeteners are safe and with few robust and verifiable negative functional effects on the human gut having been observed.11

Non-nutritive sweeteners are safe and with few robust and verifiable negative functional effects on the human gut

A question of taste?

The question of ‘taste is an interesting one…

Taste has important implications for human health because we do not exist in a vacuum and our relationship with food is determined by not only its chemical makeup, but also by taste and sensory pleasure and psychosocial associations with particular foods, tastes, textures, and other aspects of foods. Furthermore, activation of sweet taste receptors triggers physiological responses which modulate glucose homeostasis. However, non-nutritive sweeteners activate receptors but do not improve glucose homeostasis.12

Summary of potential adverse effects

from Adverse effects of the consumption of artificial sweeteners – systematic review; Bernado et al., 201613:

  1. Daily consumption of artificially-sweetened soft drinks by pregnant women can increase the likelihood of prematurity.
  2. The consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks by pregnant women may be associated with the diagnosis of asthma in their children up to the age of 7 years.
  3. There is no association between aspartame consumption during pregnancy, lactation or by the child and brain tumours in childhood and adulthood.
  4. There is no association between aspartame consumption and risk of hematopoietic cancer.
  5. There is no association between the consumption of sugar or other sweeteners, particularly aspartame, and the development of cancer in the digestive and reproductive systems.
  6. Consumption of artificial sweeteners is not associated with the development of kidney or bladder cancer in humans.
  7. The association between intake of artificially-sweetened drinks and type 2 diabetes is uncertain.
  8. There is no association between the consumption of cyclamate and male infertility.

Conclusion

While there are associations between artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners overall and some health outcomes (premature birth, overweight and obesity) these associations are unclear and demonstrated in observational research but not backed up by RCT evidence, which typically instead shows a benefit to weight-loss from moderate use of non-nutritive sweeteners. The results of observational studies are likely to be confounded by pre-existing or latent metabolic syndrome, and overweight/obesity, and psychosocial impactors of diet.

Overall, it seems unlikely based on the evidence that occasional and moderate use of artificially sweetened foods and beverages poses any meaningful human health risks.

It seems unlikely that moderate use of artificially sweetened foods and beverages poses any meaningful human health risk

References

1.            Hunter P. A toxic brew we cannot live without. Micronutrients give insights into the interplay between geochemistry and evolutionary biology. EMBO Reports. 2008;9(1):15-8.

2.            Uthus EO. Evidence for arsenic essentiality. Environmental geochemistry and health. 1992;14(2):55-8.

3.            IARC. Cadmium and Cadmium Compounds. WHO International Program on Chemical Safety; 2012.

4.            Organisation WH. Exposure to mercury: A major health concern. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organisation; 2007.

5.            Bernardo PEM, Navas SA, Murata LTF, Alcântara MRdSd. Bisphenol A: review on its use in the food packaging, exposure and toxicity. R Inst Adolfo Lutz. 2015:1-11.

6.            Pelch K, Wignall JA, Goldstone AE, Ross PK, Blain RB, Shapiro AJ, et al. A scoping review of the health and toxicological activity of bisphenol A (BPA) structural analogues and functional alternatives. Toxicology. 2019;424:152235.

7.            Raffaelina M, Santonicola S. Investigation on bisphenol A levels in human milk and dairy supply chain: A review. 2018.

8.            Usman A, Ikhlas S, Ahmad M. Occurrence, toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential of Bisphenol-B and Bisphenol-F: A mini-review. Toxicology Letters. 2019;312:222-7.

9.            Huang YQ, Wong CKC, Zheng JS, Bouwman H, Barra R, Wahlström B, et al. Bisphenol A (BPA) in China: A review of sources, environmental levels, and potential human health impacts. Environment International. 2012;42:91-9.

10.         JT Gowder S. Nephrotoxicity of bisphenol A (BPA)-an updated review. Current molecular pharmacology. 2013;6(3):163-72.

11.         Chen D, Kannan K, Tan H, Zheng Z, Feng Y-L, Wu Y, et al. Bisphenol Analogues Other Than BPA: Environmental Occurrence, Human Exposure, and Toxicity—A Review. Environmental Science & Technology. 2016;50(11):5438-53.

12.         Ohore OE, Zhang S. Endocrine disrupting effects of bisphenol A exposure and recent advances on its removal by water treatment systems. A review. Scientific African. 2019;5:e00135.

13.         Matuszczak E, Komarowska MD, Debek W, Hermanowicz A. The Impact of Bisphenol A on Fertility, Reproductive System, and Development: A Review of the Literature. International Journal of Endocrinology. 2019;2019:8.

14.         Davoren MJ, Schiestl RH. Glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer risk: a post-IARC decision review of potential mechanisms, policy and avenues of research. Carcinogenesis. 2018;39(10):1207-15.

15.         Lew H, Quintanilha A. Effects of endurance training and exercise on tissue antioxidative capacity and acetaminophen detoxification. European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics. 1991;16(1):59-68.

16.         Adawi M, Watad A, Brown S, Aazza K, Aazza H, Zouhir M, et al. Ramadan Fasting Exerts Immunomodulatory Effects: Insights from a Systematic Review. Frontiers in Immunology. 2017;8(1144).

17.         Faris MeA-IE, Jahrami HA, Obaideen AA, Madkour MI. Impact of diurnal intermittent fasting during Ramadan on inflammatory and oxidative stress markers in healthy people: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism. 2019;15:18-26.

18.         Bagherniya M, Butler AE, Barreto GE, Sahebkar A. The effect of fasting or calorie restriction on autophagy induction: A review of the literature. Ageing Research Reviews. 2018;47:183-97.

19.         Horne BD, Muhlestein JB, Anderson JL. Health effects of intermittent fasting: hormesis or harm? A systematic review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015;102(2):464-70.

20.         Mazidi M, Rezaie P, Chaudhri O, Karimi E, Nematy M. The effect of Ramadan fasting on cardiometabolic risk factors and anthropometrics parameters: A systematic review. Pak J Med Sci. 2015;31(5):1250-5.

21.         Lennox RD, Cecchini-Sternquist M. Safety and tolerability of sauna detoxification for the protracted withdrawal symptoms of substance abuse. Journal of International Medical Research. 2018;46(11):4480-99.

22.         Ross GH, Sternquist MC. Methamphetamine exposure and chronic illness in police officers: significant improvement with sauna-based detoxification therapy. Toxicology and Industrial Health. 2011;28(8):758-68.

23.         El-Desoky GE, Bashandy SA, Alhazza IM, Al-Othman ZA, Aboul-Soud MA, Yusuf K. Improvement of mercuric chloride-induced testis injuries and sperm quality deteriorations by Spirulina platensis in rats. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59177.

24.         Misbahuddin M, Islam AZ, Khandker S, Ifthaker Al M, Islam N, Anjumanara. Efficacy of spirulina extract plus zinc in patients of chronic arsenic poisoning: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Clinical toxicology (Philadelphia, Pa). 2006;44(2):135-41.

25.         Doshi H, Ray A, Kothari IL. Biosorption of cadmium by live and dead Spirulina: IR spectroscopic, kinetics, and SEM studies. Current microbiology. 2007;54(3):213-8.

26.         Takekoshi H, Suzuki G, Chubachi H, Nakano M. Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice. Chemosphere. 2005;59(2):297-304.

27.         Uchikawa T, Yasutake A, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y. The influence of <i>Parachlorella beyerinckii</i> CK-5 on the absorption and excretion of methylmercury (MeHg) in mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2010;35(1):101-5.

28.         Uchikawa T, Kumamoto Y, Maruyama I, Kumamoto S, Ando Y, Yasutake A. The enhanced elimination of tissue methylmercury in <i>Parachlorella beijerinckii</i>-fed mice. The Journal of toxicological sciences. 2011;36(1):121-6.

29.         Abenavoli L, Capasso R, Milic N, Capasso F. Milk thistle in liver diseases: past, present, future. Phytotherapy research : PTR. 2010;24(10):1423-32.

30.         Feher J, Lengyel G. Silymarin in the prevention and treatment of liver diseases and primary liver cancer. Current pharmaceutical biotechnology. 2012;13(1):210-7.

31.         Heck JE, Gamble MV, Chen Y, Graziano JH, Slavkovich V, Parvez F, et al. Consumption of folate-related nutrients and metabolism of arsenic in Bangladesh. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2007;85(5):1367-74.

32.         Rogers SA. Lipoic Acid as a Potential First Agent for Protection from Mycotoxins and Treatment of Mycotoxicosis. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal. 2003;58(8):528-32.

33.         Alcaraz-Contreras Y, Garza-Oca, #241, as L, Carca, #241, et al. Effect of Glycine on Lead Mobilization, Lead-Induced Oxidative Stress, and Hepatic Toxicity in Rats. Journal of Toxicology. 2011;2011.

34.         Nandi D, Patra RC, Swarup D. Effect of cysteine, methionine, ascorbic acid and thiamine on arsenic-induced oxidative stress and biochemical alterations in rats. Toxicology. 2005;211(1–2):26-35.

35.         Gargouri M, Ghorbel-Koubaa F, Bonenfant-Magne M, Magne C, Dauvergne X, Ksouri R, et al. Spirulina or dandelion-enriched diet of mothers alleviates lead-induced damages in brain and cerebellum of newborn rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012;50(7):2303-10.

36.         Karadeniz A, Cemek M, Simsek N. The effects of Panax ginseng and Spirulina platensis on hepatotoxicity induced by cadmium in rats. Ecotoxicology and environmental safety. 2009;72(1):231-5.

37.         Ola-Mudathir KF, Suru SM, Fafunso MA, Obioha UE, Faremi TY. Protective roles of onion and garlic extracts on cadmium-induced changes in sperm characteristics and testicular oxidative damage in rats. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2008;46(12):3604-11.

38.         Eybl V, Kotyzova D, Koutensky J. Comparative study of natural antioxidants – curcumin, resveratrol and melatonin – in cadmium-induced oxidative damage in mice. Toxicology. 2006;225(2–3):150-6.

39.         Milton Prabu S, Shagirtha K, Renugadevi J. Quercetin in combination with vitamins (C and E) improves oxidative stress and renal injury in cadmium intoxicated rats. European review for medical and pharmacological sciences. 2010;14(11):903-14.

40.         Messaoudi I, Heni J, Hammouda F, Saïd K, Kerkeni A. Protective Effects of Selenium, Zinc, or Their Combination on Cadmium-Induced Oxidative Stress in Rat Kidney. Biol Trace Elem Res. 2009;130(2):152-61.

41.         Daniel S, Limson JL, Dairam A, Watkins GM, Daya S. Through metal binding, curcumin protects against lead- and cadmium-induced lipid peroxidation in rat brain homogenates and against lead-induced tissue damage in rat brain. Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. 2004;98(2):266-75.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
×
You have free article(s) remaining. Become a Carb-Appropriate Member for unlimited access and member-only benefits.