How sweeteners can damage the gut

Their names are aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin and sucralose. The sweeteners are often used in sugar-free soft drinks such as Diet Cola, Fanta Zero and similar products.

The compounds obtained industrially from plants have a very high sweetening power, but no calories.

That is why they are mainly used in diet and light products.

Definition of the German Food Association
Sweeteners are additives that sweeten food but, unlike sugar and sugar substitutes, do not provide energy. In addition, they have no effect on blood sugar levels or dental health.

Long-term effects so far unclear

Artificial sweeteners are by no means harmless. More and more studies are now investigating the effects of chemical products on the body – and prove the influence on blood sugar levels, the feeling of satiety and intestinal health. Eleven sweeteners are currently approved in the EU, but all with a recommended maximum dosage. This is mainly due to the fact that the long-term consequences of regular sweetener consumption have not yet been sufficiently investigated.

A current study by the British Anglia Ruskin University from 2022 shows for the first time that excessive consumption of artificial sweeteners leads to pathological changes in the intestinal bacteria – and in the worst case can cause the destruction of the intestinal walls.

Sweeteners act on intestinal cells

According to the study, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame—which are primarily found in the diet versions of soft drinks—can induce gut bacteria to invade gut cells. The sweeteners primarily interact with intestinal bacteria of the Escherichia coli (E.coli) and Enterococcus faecalis (E.faecalis) type.

“There are many concerns about consumption of artificial sweeteners, with some studies showing that sweeteners can affect the layer of bacteria that supports the gut, known as the gut microbiome,” says study lead author Havovi Chichger.

The results demonstrate for the first time the disease-promoting effects of artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. Appropriate sweeteners interact with healthy bacteria in the intestine, which leads to increased adhesion of the intestinal bacteria, explains Chichger. The adhesions form a biofilm, a tough bacterial film that covers the mucous membrane of the intestine and reflects an imbalance in the intestinal flora.

Even two cans of light drink are too much

The authors of the study emphasize that even the smallest amounts of the sweeteners can cause damage to the intestines – two cans of well-known light soft drinks are enough to significantly increase the pathogenicity of E. coli and E. faecalis. Saccharin, sucralose and aspartame have similar detrimental effects on gut flora, with saccharin having no significant effect on E. coli invasion.

Studies have previously shown the negative effects of sweeteners on intestinal health.

intestinal flora destroyed

Another study from Anglia Ruskin University from 2021 examined the effect of sweeteners on the intestinal flora. The result: synthetically produced sweeteners cause the intestinal bacteria to attach themselves to certain cells in the intestinal wall, penetrate them and kill them – they thus systematically destroy the intestinal flora. In the best case, this can lead to digestive problems, but in the worst case to infections, blood poisoning and multi-organ failure.

Conclusion

When consuming diet products with sweeteners such as Diet Cola and similar drinks, the possible long-term damage and side effects should be taken into account. Since the calorie-free sweetening alternatives have still not been sufficiently investigated, but current studies clearly show the harmful effects of regular consumption, it is important to be careful.

If you want to eat as wholesome a diet as possible, you should use high-quality organic products when sweetening food and use alternatives that are as natural as possible. Instead of conventional table sugar, honey or sweeteners, dried fruit, dates or even ripe bananas and apple pulp can be used to sweeten dishes. When it comes to drinks, fresh fruit or lemon juice can provide variety in the water.

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Shil A, Chichger H. Artificial Sweeteners Negatively Regulate Pathogenic Characteristics of Two Model Gut Bacteria, E. coli and E. faecalis. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2021; 22(10):5228. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22105228

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