Whether it’s enjoying a Pepsi Max with lunch, or the (slightly) lessened guilt that comes with mixing vodka and Coke Zero, diet soft drinks offer a little bit of indulgence without the sugar content of their full-strength counterparts.
However, a new study out of Massachusetts General Hospital seems to provide a tentative link between aspartame – a common artificial sweetener used in soft drinks and other sweets – and weight gain and gut irritation.
Decades of study, human trial, and review into the effects of aspartame had deemed the substance safe for inclusion in a balanced diet for most people. Now though, Richard Hodin, Surgical Director at the MGH Centre for Inflammatory Bowel Disease, is heading up a team to probe whether the substance is as safe as once thought.
Hodin’s team have discovered a possibly damaging reaction pathway between a product of aspartame’s breakdown and intestinal alkaline phostphatase (IAP). IAP is an enzyme abundant in the gut that helps break down lipopolysaccharides, which are toxic to certain gut flora.
IAP’s action can be inhibited in the presence of aspartame, causing gut irritation, bloating and digestive problems.
What’s more, in a trial performed on mice, subjects which were fed a high-fat diet put on more weight in the presence of aspartame than in the presence of regular sugars. This seems to be due, in part, to the irritation of gut flora caused by IAP.
As it happens, the same gut flora play a role in balancing glucose levels in the body. The result? Higher blood glucose levels between meals, and weight gain – two warning signs for diabetes.
This is especially worrying given that artificial sweeteners are often recommended to diabetics.
There’s a long way to go before confirmation, with no studies having been performed on humans – it could be that these interactions only happen in vitro, or in mice.
Still, there is one upshot of these findings – increased probing into the role of IAP could help develop better treatments for diseases such as diabetes, which IAP is now thought to play a role in.
And that’s something we can all agree is pretty damn sweet.