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Sweeteners hurt the ability of gut bacteria to keep us well: Israeli study

Researchers find 3 most common artificial sweeteners cause a ‘breakdown in communication’ among microbes, potentially raising risk of obesity, diabetes and digestive problems

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: A container holding packets of artificial sweetener (BigRedCurlyGuy; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A container holding packets of artificial sweetener (BigRedCurlyGuy; iStock by Getty Images)

Artificial sweeteners cause a “breakdown in communication” among gut bacteria, changing the microbiome and potentially increasing the risk of disease, Israeli scientists say.

Gut bacteria keep people healthy, but to do so they need to be present in the right balance. This is maintained in part by a communication mechanism that bacteria use, called quorum sensing, which enables bacteria to detect and respond to cell population density by regulating their own genes, affecting their behavior.

“Artificial sweeteners disrupt that communication, which indicates that artificial sweeteners may be problematic in the long run,” said Dr. Karina Golberg, who led the peer-reviewed study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

Artificial sweeteners are widely used in the food and drink industry. Various studies have raised health concerns about them, but Golberg said that her study set out to identify how, exactly, sweeteners may be affecting health.

Her team exposed bacteria to FDA-approved sweeteners in lab conditions. It used light-emitting bacteria whose emission of light was reduced if bacterial communication was disrupted. It found that the three most common sweeteners all impeded bacterial communication: saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose.

Three less common sweeteners, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), advantame, and neotame, did not have this effect.

Illustration of the human microbiome (Design Cells via iStock by Getty Images)

Golberg told The Times of Israel: “What we found is that the most popular artificial sweeteners interfere with communication between bacteria which regulates important functions, and once this is harmed the bacteria cannot conduct themselves properly as a ‘community.’

“When you disrupt the bacterial communication you are disrupting the natural bacterial balance in the gut which can, in turn, cause problems with digestion, and increased risk of obesity and of type two diabetes, and other health problems.”

Golberg’s colleague Prof. Ariel Kushmaro said that faced with this research, manufacturers should start better labeling products to show how much sweetener they contain, so consumers can make informed choices.

“There is little accurate labeling of artificial sweeteners on products, which makes it difficult to know how much each product contains,” he said. “Our research should push the food industry to reevaluate their use of artificial sweeteners.”

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