Do beverages containing artificial sweeteners come with unintended consequences?

Do certain artificial sweeteners disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome and does this imbalance have health consequences?

Dr. André Marette

Scientific Director of the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods (INAF) and a Professor with the Department of Medicine at the University of Laval, Dr. André Marette is also an investigator with the Quebec Lung and Heart Institute (Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec (IUCPQ).

“This funding from CIHR will allow us, for the first time, to compare the effect of sugar sweetened beverages and non-nutritive artificial or natural sweeteners on the gut microbiome and the metabolic health of human subjects.”

Nutritive sweeteners are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables. They provide the body with nourishment in the form of carbohydrates or fibers that are converted into energy or used by our gut bacteria to maintain intestinal health.

Non-nutritive sweeteners are low- or no-calorie artificial or natural sweeteners that offer no nutritional benefits. They are many times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), and are widely used in our food supply, most notably in sweet beverages such as diet soft drinks. They can also be found in other food products including desserts, chewing gum, and yogurt.

Dr. André Marette is leading a team of researchers at Laval University that is investigating the effect of non-nutritive sweeteners (steviol glycosides or aspartame/acesulfame K ) on gut bacteria composition and function, and its association with metabolic health.

A well-balanced gut microbiome – the ecosystem that enables the body to break down food and absorb nutrients – is an essential element of good intestinal health. The gut microbiome is also vital to metabolic health, as it has been shown that disruption of the intestinal microbiome may lead to weight gain and metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Marette’s team will study the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages or similar beverages containing non-nutritive natural or artificial sweeteners on the composition of the gut microbiome, and whether such changes are associated with metabolic abnormalities and an increase in their risk of developing cardio-metabolic complications. 

The evidence collected by Dr. Marette and his colleagues will enable us to determine whether artificial sweeteners are harmful to health or represent healthy alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages.

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