Sweeteners in food are everywhere. They’re in our bread, sodas, yogurts, and many other foods and drinks that we consume every day. However, most people are okay with consuming these sweeteners because they think they’re safe. After all, they’re in products all around us and approved for consumption by the FDA.
We’ve been led to believe that artificial sweeteners, like those in diet sodas, are “healthy” and that natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and agave are not because of their high fructose content. Are artificial sweeteners the answer to the health problems that can come from a sugar-rich diet? The truth is not so black and white.
Did you know that sweeteners can have an impact on the health of your gut?
What even is sugar? Sugar is the common term for what scientists call sucrose. This compound is made of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose (fruit sugar). The sugar you buy at the grocery store is typically processed from sugarcane or sugar beets, but all plants contain sugar.
Although in more recent years Americans are consuming less sugar, they still consume over 300% of the recommended daily intake. Scientists have observed a positive correlation between obesity and the overconsumption of sugar. Research has also demonstrated that excessive sugar intake can bring dysbiosis (imbalance) to the microbiome and promote inflammation. Other unsavory health risks associated with eating too much sugar include the following:
- Dental damage
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cirrhosis of the liver
However, sugar is not the enemy. In fact, mammals heavily depend on glucose—it’s the main energy source for our brains! So, how can we balance our sweet tooth, brain health, and the possible downsides of consuming too much sugar?
Many people have turned to sugar substitutes, artificial and natural, to curb their sugar consumption. However, this move can come with consequences, including the impact that sugar substitutes can have on our microbiome. Together, we’ll dive into the anatomy of artificial and natural sweeteners and discover how they affect our gut microbiome.
Nonnutritive sweeteners, commonly known as artificial sweeteners, include synthetic and plant-derived compounds that provide sweetness with little or no caloric value. The sweeteners currently approved for use as a food additive or are generally recognized as safe by the FDA are:
- Monk Fruit Extract
Another class of artificial sweeteners includes sugar alcohols. Derived from sugar, these compounds are less sweet. However, they contain fewer calories, keep blood glucose levels from spiking, and do not contribute to tooth decay. While several different sugar alcohols are used in a variety of foods, some of the most common sugar alcohols are:
How do artificial sweeteners interact with the gut microbiome? While the research is developing, scientists have discovered a few potential unfavorable effects associated with the consumption of artificial sweeteners. Saccharin, sucralose, and stevia can shift the relative proportions of specific bacterial populations in the microbiome, effectively changing their composition.
Sugar alcohols can also have an impact on gut health. A few compounds in the category have been observed to increase the relative proportion of Bifidobacterium in humans. This species is typically a friendly species in our gut microbiome. However, researchers have also demonstrated sugar alcohols act as a laxative for some with inflammatory bowel disease/Crohn's disease.
To sum up, more work needs to be done to evaluate the potential role of artificial sweeteners in the gut microbiome. However, some of them are linked to adverse shifts in our intestinal communities.
Natural sweeteners are another popular substitute for processed sugar. Some of the fan favorites, especially among the health-conscious crowd, includes the following:
- Maple syrup
Finally, some words that we can pronounce! Side-by-side comparisons in vivo of how artificial and natural sweeteners each affect the microbiome aren’t currently in circulation. However, a couple of studies show promise for potential positive effects from consuming a couple of these natural sugar substitutes, including honey and maple syrup.
For example, in one mouse study , honey consumption protected the gut from the harmful effects caused by mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are produced by fungal molds that grow on food and crops. In addition, the honey-supplement diet also improved the microbiome’s composition by increasing the relative abundance of two of the most important probiotic (“friendly”) types of bacteria: Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.
Another study discovered a compound called inulin in maple syrup. A type of fiber found in several plants, the compound has been reported to act as a prebiotic for the human gut microbiome. In other words, the sugar substitute promotes the growth of probiotic bacteria, while staving off the harmful ones.
Overall, the lack of supporting in vivo data on these research questions calls for more to be done. Those of us with sweet tooths have to stick together because the world of sweeteners is complicated! Curious to learn more about how your sugar and sweetener consumption has affected your gut? Floré can help.