Artificial sweeteners could increase the risk of developing type two diabetes, research suggests.
Scientists found consuming high quantities of the sweeteners – which are used in diet drinks, breakfast cereals and chewing gum – changes the way the body responds to sugar.
The research team from George Washington University believe obese people – the very group most likely to use artificial sweeteners – are particularly at risk from their use.
The scientists carried out a series of tests, both on cells in petri dishes and live human volunteers, which raised concerns about the effect of sweeteners on the body’s metabolism.
They found drinking the equivalent of four cans of diet fizzy drinks a day noticeably increased fat accumulation – a risk factor for type two diabetes.
Scientists found consuming high quantities of the sweeteners – which are used in diet drinks, breakfast cereals and chewing gum – changes the way the body responds to sugar
The team, which presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in Chicago, believe artificial sweeteners increase the speed at which sugar is absorbed into blood cells.
Healthy people finely manage glucose levels in their blood stream – releasing insulin after eating, for example, which transfers sugar from the blood into the liver and muscles.
But if there is too much glucose in the blood the body cannot keep up – a problem known as insulin resistance, one of the main elements of type two diabetes.
The researchers placed sucralose, a widely used sweetener, together with cells taken from human fat.
They left these cells in dishes for 12 days, and found increased expression of genes that are markers of fat production and inflammation.
Dr Sabyasachi Sen said: ‘Our stem cell-based studies indicate that low-calorie sweeteners promote additional fat accumulation within cells compared with cells not exposed to these substances, in a dose-dependent fashion – meaning that as the dose of sucralose is increased more cells showed increased fat droplet accumulation.
WHAT IS TYPE 2 DIABETES?
Worldwide, there are believed to be around 380 million sufferers. In Britain this has topped 3.8 million, a figure that continues to rise.
The World Health Organization issued a warning to say the world is facing ‘a growing diabetes epidemic of potentially devastating proportions’ in 2004.
Since 1996, the number of people living with diabetes has more than doubled. The rapid escalation remains of great concern to health bodies.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by having too much glucose in the blood because the body’s way of turning it into energy is not working properly.
As the condition progresses, sufferers often need to maintain a healthy diet, exercise and a combination of medications to manage it.
Controlling blood sugar levels are also considered to be the key to reducing the risk of life-changing complications for those already diagnosed.
Someone’s life expectancy with type 2 diabetes is likely to be reduced as a result of the condition, by up to 10 years, it is believed.
‘This most likely occurs by increasing glucose entry into cells through increased activity of genes called glucose transporters.’
The researchers saw the changes with a 0.2-millimolar sucralose dose – similar to the concentration found in the blood of people who drank four cans of diet fizzy drinks a day.
The scientists carried out a second experiment on samples of fat from 24 volunteers of different weights.
Among those of a healthy weight, the difference in gene expressions were not significant.
But, among the obese volunteers the researchers saw those who consumed lots of artificial sweeteners transported sugar into their cells much more quickly.
More than 3.7 million people in the UK have type two diabetes, and the numbers have doubled in 20 years, largely due to obesity.
But British experts said the results were not definitive – and artificial sweeteners are probably better than sugar.
Professor Naveed Sattar, of the University of Glasgow, said: ‘Whilst of interest, this study does not alter my mind that having sugar free alternatives to drinks or sweets which use artificial sweeteners is better for health than having sugar rich alternatives.
‘There are other studies which suggest such sweeteners may have actual benefits.
‘Overall, we need randomised trials in humans to test and again such studies show benefits of sugar free alternatives help weight loss compared to sugar rich drinks.’