Fake sugars linked to obesity, heart disease

Sugar has been demonized as the “new tobacco,” even the new heroin. But what about those pretty-coloured packets of fake sugars?

According to a new review by University of Manitoba researchers, artificial sweeteners may, paradoxically, not only make people fatter but also increase risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular “events” like heart attack and stroke.

One theory is that sweeteners lead to metabolic derangements, confusing the brain and body’s ability to respond to and process sugar.

Hundreds times sweeter than sugar, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are among the most widely used food additives on the globe, found in more than 6,000 products worldwide. Sweeteners in “no-sugar added” foods like ice cream, yogurt and granola bars have become so ubiquitous, trace amounts are showing up in urine and blood samples taken from people who report not using them.

“People are consuming them without knowing it,” said Dr. Meghan Azad, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and child health at the U of Manitoba.

Two years ago, a study published in the journal Nature found sugar substitutes act on bacteria in the gut. After 11 weeks, mice fed saccharin showed changes in their gut microbiome. They also became pre-diabetic. Azad wondered whether there was evidence for similar effects in humans.

She and her colleagues performed a systematic review and meta-analysis — a study of studies — looking at the effects of long-term, regular consumption of sweeteners on a person’s cardio-metabolic health.

In the end, they reviewed 37 studies involving more than 400,000 people.

Only seven of the studies were randomized controlled trials — considered the gold standard in medical research — involving just over 1,000 people followed for six months, on average. In those studies, the sweeteners didn’t show a consistent effect on weight loss.

The 30 other larger, and longer observational studies, where people were…

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