Israel-Singapore study takes sugar-coating off artificial sweeteners

Bacteria in the digestive system have a toxic response when exposed to even small amounts of six different sugar substitutes

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of an artificial sweetener (humonia; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of an artificial sweetener (humonia; iStock by Getty Images)

Artificial sweeteners, even those approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and sports supplements that use them, are toxic for human gut bacteria, a new study by researchers in Israel and Singapore says.

The study, published in Molecules by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, looked at six artificial sweeteners — all of them approved for use in food and drinks in the US and the EU, including aspartame, sucralose and saccharine neotame, advantame and acesulfame potassium-k, and 10 sport supplements containing these artificial sweeteners.

Aspartame is found used in many diet sodas, like Coke Zero Sugar, Fanta Zero, and Minute Maid Light, according to the Coca Cola Co. website, while Diet Coke contains sucralose and acesulfame potassium.

The findings of the study showed that the bacteria found in the digestive system, like E. coli, had a toxic response when exposed to concentrations of even only one mg./ml. of the artificial sweeteners.

“This is further evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners adversely affects gut microbial activity which can cause a wide range of health issues,” said Prof. Ariel Kushmaro, John A. Ungar Chair in Biotechnology at the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering at the Israeli university.

Healthy gut bacteria are increasingly being associated with wellbeing, and are believed to be effective in regulating hormones, the absorption of nutrients and also digestion and the immune system.

In the lab trial, the researchers genetically modified E. coli bacteria to become luminescent when exposed to toxins. They then exposed the bacteria to the artificial sweeteners, causing the toxic response.

Artificial sweeteners are used in countless food products and soft drinks with reduced sugar content. Many people consume this added ingredient unknowingly, the researchers said in a statement. Artificial sweeteners have also been identified as emerging environmental pollutants, and can be found in drinking and surface water, and groundwater aquifers, the statement said.

“The results of this study might help in understanding the relative toxicity of artificial sweeteners and the potential of negative effects on the gut microbial community as well as the environment,” said Kushmaro.

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