Artificial sweetners: not such a sweet deal

Consumers of artificial sweetners at higher risk for three of top ten causes of death, professor says

Samuel Bramlett

For at least three of the top ten causes of death in America, people who regularly consume artificial sweeteners have an increased risk, Susan Swithers, a professor at Purdue College of Health and Human Science told an audience at Washington and Lee last week.

Swithers has dedicated the last decade of her life to the research of artificial sweeteners. She said she has found that while the beverage industry loves to promote its low-calorie diet drinks, the artificial sweeteners added to them can be just as unhealthy as drinking regular soda.

Swithers’ study was conducted by giving one group of rats food and drink which contained artificial sweeteners and another group food and drink that did not. According to Swithers, all of the rats received the same amount of food and drink but the group that received the artificial sweetener gained more weight than the group that did not.

“Animals given artificial sweeteners before pure glucose had higher blood glucose levels than those that hadn’t,” Swithers said.

Giving artificial sweetener to a rat before giving it actual sugar causes the rat to gain more weight because of the brain’s reaction to taste cues, Swithers said. She said that the brain associates sweet taste with sugar and therefore releases hormones to effectively deal with the sugar.

According to Swithers’ study, artificial sweeteners trick the brain by giving off the taste of sugar without actually being sugar. The brain begins to have trouble distinguishing when sweet taste means sugar has been ingested and therefore doesn’t produce the hormone that regulates blood sugar as quickly as it normally would.

“It is very difficult to look at these outcomes and argue that diet sodas are helping,” Swithers said. “No matter how you analyze or manipulate these data, you cannot make them show that drinking diet soda’s reduce risk.”

Swithers’ study came under fire in the past year by the American Council of Science and Health, which said that the study makes no attempt to present an unbiased, weight of evidence assessment. Swithers countered the ACSH’s claim during her lecture, saying that the Coca-Cola company funds the ACSH.

“Beverages are not their only domain, they do all kinds of things,” said Swithers. “But they’re not looking out for your health. They’re looking out for the health of the corporation that supports them.”

Swithers showed the audience a letter written to Purdue by the Calorie Control Council, a group that receives its funding from producers of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saying that promoting Swithers’ “biased science” was not acting in the best interest of public health.

Swithers said Purdue responded by saying she had the university’s total support and it would not stop promoting her work.

“I do not do biased science,” Swithers said. “I published a peer-reviewed paper that the industry didn’t like and their response was to write to my employer to tell them to stop talking about my study.”