Artificial facts about artificial sweeteners

A friend of mine subscribes to a sports-nutrition newsletter written by someone named Michael Colgan, whom I’d never heard of until four weeks ago, when this friend asked me for my thoughts about a pair of Colgan’s articles, one about iron deficiency and the other about optimizing fluid replenishment on the go. These are not novel topics, and much of what Colgan has to say about them is de rigueur, although based on my own experiences in these areas I quibbled with a few of his claims.

But after questioning my friend further, I discovered that Colgan, who apparently has a PhD in something (I say “apparently” because his Web site doesn’t include an “About Me” section and the links given on Wikipedia pointing to this information are broken), offers phone consultations for an eyebrow-raising $750 an hour. That’s $12.50 a minute, which I believe (but do not know) is less than it costs to speak to a breathless and toothless 55-year-old woman with hirsutism and a beer belly pretending to be a naked clone of Jennifer Aniston. And after learning still more about “The Colgan Institute” (and keeping in mind that a number of established “institutes” involve no more than space in someone’s mother’s garage), I think that all else being equal I might spend my money on the bloated 1-900 interlocutor.

I often use artificial sweeteners, in particular Splenda, Equal and Truvia, to flavor my coffee. When none of these are available, and often when they are, I use ordinary table sugar, or brown sugar, or powdered sugar, or honey, or maple syrup, or whatever’s on hand that will sweeten the beverage. As much as I like coffee, I don’t like to drink it black, especially if it comes from Starbucks and is therefore all but assured to taste like boiled goat piss with some bittering agents added.

Anyway, another friend has a serious problem with artificial sweeteners and believes the popular idea that they are somewhere between mild poisons and the impending end of the physical world, an ethos founded chiefly on the unfettered shepherding of Equal into the U.S. market by the Reagan FDA. I’ve looked into the idea that Equal and Splenda have harmful effects on health and have decided, based on the available literature, that there is no evidence to support this idea, at least when looking at body concentration of either aspartame or sucralose in rats or humans that can be described as physiological. I should add that while the really long-term effects of these additives cannot be known given their relative youth, the same could be said for supplements popular with the anti-sweetener crowd that have been subjected to far less scientific scrutiny. Then there’s the undeniable fact that the sugar industry is invested in pumping out as much dire propaganda as possible about artificial sweeteners, a tactic that works well on a largely incurious and credulous public (and if Splenda and Equal were even one-tenth as dangerous as their opponents believe, many American women would be blind and confined to wheelchairs by the age of thirty owing to their extravagant consumption of diet soda).

Finally, I can assure you that I don’t really give a shit whether these sweeteners might have some long-term negative consequences, because something else is surely going to take me out of the world first. It is a vexing consequence of traveling in certain circles that my diet — which is probably more objectively healthful in terms of fat intake, attention to key micronutrients, and other things than that of 90 percent of people I know — earns me a lot of (usually) good-natured grief from my associates. I’m sometimes tempted to invite them to fuck themselves, but generally I just ignore them. Last I knew my cholesterol, which I also don’t give a shit about, was in the 170s with an LDL-to-HDL ration of under 3 to 1, and my blood pressure is normally 105/70 or so. My only source of stress is editing articles by people that hit the space bar twice after closing punctuation; I am incredibly fit and strong and sexy, with no limitations on my physical or intellectual prowess. Therefore, I really don’t need any guff or static.

But that’s getting off the track here. Back to the present. This morning my friend (who does use artificial sweeteners herself) forwarded me the following tidbit from the Colgan Institute (emphasis mine):

Use of Artificial Sweeteners Increases Body Fat

The main sugar substitutes are saccarin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda, Altern) and acesulfame potassium. Sorbital and maltitol are used in “no sugar” ice cream and candy. Erythritol is the most recent, xylitol, cyclamate, and stevia are common. Despite their minimal to zero calories, they all make you put on body fat.

They pile on the pudge for simple physiological reasons. Sweet tastes in the mouth, and in the gut, induce an appetitive response by the brain, and an insulin response by the pancreas. (1-3) Because the artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, the response is larger than if you use sugar. Insulin is a prime storage hormone. The extra insulin will store as fat all the extra calories you eat because of the appetitive response induced but not satisfied by the chemical sweetener. Studies show definitively that both rats and people fed artificial sweeteners, put on more weight than if they used the equivalent amount of sugar. (1-3)

The artificial sweetener industry does not like being told that they are contributing to the rampant adult-onset diabetes and obesity in the US and Canada. And their ads claim the opposite. But if you examine the science, you will never use an artificial sweetener again.

1. Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 Jun;83(2):101-8.
2. Brown RJ, de Banate MA, Rother KI. Artificial sweeteners: a systematic review of metabolic effects in youth. Int J Pediatr Obes. 2010 Aug;5(4):305-12.
3. Margolskee,R, et al. T1R3 and gustducin in gut sense sugars to regulate expression of Na+-glucose cotransporter 1 PNAS 2007 104: 15075-15080.

First of all, color me nitpicky, but when someone claims to be an authority on the hazards of things they can’t even spell, like saccharin and sorbitol, I am immediately suspicious of their familiarity with the topic at hand. Secondly, the title and the other bolded passages are bullshit. Calorie-free or very-low-calorie substances don’t make anyone eat an increased amount of food any more than stress makes anyone drink or smoke. Thirdly, the final paragraph is almost pathognomonic for bullshit — it’s the whole Gribbitian “what they’re not telling you” approach. The use of artificial sweeteners is so widespread that it is highly unlikely at best that the industry would be able to hide the fact that its products “make” people gain weight. It’s not that its representatives wouldn’t try; as Dr. House says, everyone lies. It’s that some disinterested scientific entity would have uncovered the truth. And with that, on to the studies Colgan cites.

The abstract of the Yang study includes the observation that because obesity has increased in concert with artificial sweetener use, then maybe the latter is contributing to the former. This is very much like proposing that because more people than ever are running marathons, distance running perhaps contributes to obesity. Now, if anyone can adduce some evidence to the claim that there may be causality at work here, fine. But in lieu of a real conclusion, Dr. Yang admits, in carefully worded language, that the evidence is equivocal (“I … summarize the epidemiological and experimental evidence concerning [artificial sweeteners’] effects on weight … I attempt to explain those effects in light of the neurobiology of food reward”). So Colgan’s use of this study as supporting his conclusion is patently unjustified.

The conclusion of the study of kids by Brown et al. is this: “Presently, there is no strong clinical evidence for causality regarding artificial sweetener use and metabolic health effects, but it is important to examine possible contributions of these common food additives to the global rise in pediatric obesity and diabetes.” In other words, this research in no way supports Colgan’s claim, but because the authors suggest that people keep looking for a connection where none has yet been found, Colgan will pretend that it does and hope no one checks for themselves.

The glucose-contransporter study, carried out in mice, is more interesting in that it deals in actual physiology rather than speculation. To simplify slightly, it seems that artificial sweeteners can, via hormonal mediation, trigger the intestinal equivalent of certain taste buds to increase the ability of the intestine to absorb sugars. However, sugars themselves do the same thing.

Colgan, then, has cited three studies he says support his assertion when they do not. But there are also studies directly contradicting Colgan’s claim. One of them, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, concludes that “data from numerous publications on the effects of low-energy sweeteners on appetite, insulin and glucose levels, food intake and body weight have shown that there is no consistent evidence that low-energy sweeteners increase appetite or subsequent food intake, cause insulin release or affect blood pressure in normal subjects,” and warns that findings in studies like the one above involving rats cannot be extrapolated to humans.

There has never been any question, as far as I know, that artificial sweeteners trick the body into thinking that it has been fed real carbohydrate — after all, that’s the whole point — and so it stands to reason that this effect penetrates into the body beyond the reach of the tongue. The bottom line here is whether one buys into the idea that people necessarily consume additional calories in response to artificial sweeteners per se. If they do, they don’t do so to any greater extent than after ingesting sugar itself, and since sugar obviously has more calories than sugar substitutes, it’s unclear how avoiding artificial sweeteners and going back to the default calories in sugar is advantageous. Certainly, although I could not access the full text of these studies, if the researchers had concluded what Colgan claims that they did (i.e., that sweeteners lead to more weight gain than sugar alone, that all “extra” calories are stored as fat thanks to insulin release, etc.) they surely would have said so in the abstract. None did, and the weight of the evidence in this is strongly against Colgan, so my own conclusion is that he is either lazy or lying outright here and that the rest of his work is therefore suspect, be it the “information” he disseminates for free or whatever he might say for $750 an hour. And, having examined the science per Colgan’s suggestion, I can freely state that I will, in fact, use artificial sweeteners again.

That’ll be $145.

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  1. #1 by Jim on April 22, 2011 - 10:28 am

    Maybe I’m strange, but I don’t have much of a problem with plain old sugar (or honey or maple syrup, which I get from a former student who boils it down himself). The way I see it, it’s 15 calories per teaspoon and my body has evolved to metabolize it. Enough said.

  2. #2 by kemibe on April 23, 2011 - 12:47 am

    But Jim, you have plainly not gotten the memo that sugar makes you catch obesity and diabetes. It’s a dietary evil through and through, regardless of the uncanny number of enzymes human possess to help convert the shit to ATP in cells. It’s like running and heart disease. What Big Running doesn’t want you to know is that running causes myocardial infarctions. Ever heard of Jim Fixx? Big Running will try to tell you that it was his sky-high cholesterol and huge family history of CAD that did him in, but if you look at the real science you’ll never run another step again. This PSA brought to you by the makers of SPAM and pork rinds.

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