It also shows evidence that these products are not beneficial for controlling excess weight.
Francisco Gómez-Delgado, MD, PhD, and Pablo Pérez-Martínez, MD, PhD, are members of the Spanish Society of Arteriosclerosis and of the Spanish Society of Internal Medicine. They have coordinated an updated review of the leading scientific evidence surrounding artificial sweeteners: evidence showing that far from positively affecting our health, they have “negative effects for the cardiometabolic system.”
The paper, published in Current Opinion in Cardiology, delves into the consumption of these sweeteners and their negative influence on the development of obesity and of several of the most important cardiometabolic risk factors (hypertension, dyslipidemia, and diabetes).
Globalization and the increase in consumption of ultraprocessed foods have led to a need for greater knowledge on the health impacts of certain nutrients such as artificial sweeteners (nutritive and nonnutritive). This review aims to analyze their role and their effect on cardiometabolic and cardiovascular disease risk.
The detrimental effects of a high-calorie, high-sugar diet have been well established. For this reason, health authorities recommend limiting sugar consumption. The recommendation has led the food industry to develop different artificial sweeteners with specific properties, such as flavor and stability (nutritive artificial sweeteners), and others aimed at limiting sugar in the diet (nonnutritive artificial sweeteners). Recent evidence explores the influence of these two types of artificial sweeteners on cardiovascular disease risk through risk factors such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, among others.
Initially, the consumption of artificial sweeteners was presented as an alternative for reducing calorie intake in the diet as an option for people with excess weight and obesity. However, as this paper explains, the consumption of these artificial sweeteners favors weight gain because of neuroendocrine mechanisms related to satiety that are abnormally activated when artificial sweeteners are consumed.
On the other hand, evidence shows that consuming artificial sweeteners does not encourage weight loss. “Quite the contrary,” Dr. Pérez-Martínez, scientific director at the Maimonides Biomedical Research Institute and internist at the University Hospital Reina Sofia, both in Córdoba, told this news organization. “There is evidence showing weight gain resulting from the effect that artificial sweetener consumption has at the neurohormonal level by altering the mechanisms involved in regulating the feeling of satiety.”
However, on the basis of current evidence, sugar cannot be claimed to be less harmful. “What we do know is that in both cases, we should reduce or remove them from our diets and replace them with other healthier alternatives for weight management, such as eating plant-based products or being physically active.”
Nonetheless, these recommendations are conditional, “because the weight of the evidence is not extremely high, since there have not been a whole lot of studies. All nutritional studies must be viewed with caution,” Manuel Anguita, MD, PhD, said in an interview. Dr. Anguita is department head of clinical cardiology at the University Hospital Reina Sofia in Córdoba and past president of the Spanish Society of Cardiology.
“It’s something that should be included within the medical record when you’re assessing cardiovascular risk. In addition to identifying patients who use artificial sweeteners, it’s especially important to emphasize that it’s not an appropriate recommendation for weight management.” Healthier measures include moderate exercise and the Mediterranean diet.
Explaining why this research is valuable, he said, “It’s generally useful because there’s ignorance not only in the population but among physicians as well [about] these negative effects of sweeteners.”
Diabetes and metabolic syndrome
Artificial sweeteners cause significant disruptions in the endocrine system, leading our metabolism to function abnormally. The review revealed that consuming artificial sweeteners raises the risk for type 2 diabetes by between 18% and 24% and raises the risk for metabolic syndrome by up to 44%.
Dr. Gómez-Delgado, an internal medicine specialist at the University Hospital of Jaen in Spain and first author of the study, discussed the deleterious effects of sweeteners on metabolism. “On one hand, neurohormonal disorders impact appetite, and the feeling of satiety is abnormally delayed.” On the other hand, “they induce excessive insulin secretion in the pancreas,” which in the long run, encourages metabolic disorders that lead to diabetes. Ultimately, this process produces what we know as “dysbiosis, since our microbiota is unable to process these artificial sweeteners.” Dysbiosis triggers specific pathophysiologic processes that negatively affect cardiometabolic and cardiovascular systems.
Regarding the type of sweetener, Dr. Gómez-Delgado noted that currently available studies assess the consumption of special dietary products that, in most cases, include various types of artificial sweeteners. “So, it’s not possible to define specific differences between them as to how they impact our health.” Additional studies are needed to confirm this effect at the cardiometabolic level and to analyze the different types of artificial sweeteners individually.
“There’s enough evidence to confirm that consuming artificial sweeteners negatively interferes with our metabolism – especially glucose metabolism – and increases the risk of developing diabetes,” said Dr. Gómez-Delgado.
When it comes to the influence of artificial sweeteners on hypertension, “there is no single explanation. The World Health Organization already discussed this issue 4-5 years ago, not only due to their carcinogenic risk, but also due to this cardiovascular risk in terms of a lack of control of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension,” said Dr. Anguita.
Another important point “is that this is not in reference to the sweeteners themselves, but to soft drinks containing those components, which is where we have more studies,” he added. There are two factors explaining this increase in hypertension, which poses a problem at the population level, with medium- to long-term follow-up. “The sugary beverages that we mentioned have a higher sodium content. That is, the sweeteners add this element, which is a factor that’s directly linked to the increase in blood pressure levels.” Another factor that can influence blood pressure is “the increase in insulin secretion that has been described as resulting from sweeteners. In the medium and long term, this is associated with increased blood pressure levels.”