Sugar substitutes have been targeted in recent years after being linked to a number of potential health problems. Now, there’s another one to add to the list: they can interfere with your liver’s ability to detoxify your body.
This is the main finding of the new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The study specifically looked at the impact of two sugar substitutes, acesulfame potassium and sucralose, on liver cells and cell-free assays, which allow scientists to study cellular processes.
The researchers found that sweeteners disrupted the function of a protein called P-glycoprotein (PGP), which helps rid the body of toxins, drugs, and drug metabolites (i.e. the byproducts that form when the body breaks down a drug. ).
“We think it could interfere with the efficiency of drugs or chemotherapy and increase toxicity,” says study lead author Stephanie Olivier Van-Stichelen, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “That’s where we’re putting our research right now.”
Olivier-Van Stichelen points out that while artificial sweeteners will appear on food nutrition labels, the actual amount is not listed. “We usually don’t know how many sweeteners we consume,” he says. “It’s not listed on yogurt and diet soda labels and it’s hard for people to know how much they’re drinking.”
How worried should you be about this? Experts break it down.
What are sugar substitutes?
Sugar substitutes, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners or artificial sweeteners, are substances that give you a sweet taste with little or no calories, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Both sucralose, which has the Splenda brand name, and acesulfame potassium (aka Sweet One), are FDA approved for use as food additives.
How your liver detoxifies your body
Your liver is an organ that regulates most of the chemical levels in the blood and excretes a product called bile that helps carry waste products out of the liver, according to Hopkins Medicine.
All the blood that leaves the stomach and intestines passes through the liver, which processes and balances the blood. It also metabolizes drugs into forms that are easier for the rest of the body to use or that aren’t toxic, says Hopkins Medicine.
“The liver is the main, but not the only detoxifying organ in your body,” says Jamie Alan, Ph.D., Pharm.D., Associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. (The kidneys, lungs, and lymphatic system also play a role in detoxifying the body, along with other organs.) When something interferes with the function of the liver, “it may shift your metabolism to another non-toxic product and you may not notice anything, “says Alan. But, he adds,” you may be building up the active compound or a toxic metabolite and then serious side effects or consequences could occur. “
Your liver plays a crucial role in the detoxification process, though. “Your liver is essential for breaking down and eliminating waste products from normal metabolism, as well as chemicals, toxins and drugs from your body,” says Rebecca Mason, RDN, manager of clinical nutrition at Spectrum Health. “Restricting your liver’s ability to do this could mean increased levels of toxins remaining in your system or altered metabolism.”
In the case of these sugar substitutes, Olivier-Van Stichelen says more work is needed to understand what the results mean. “We’re trying to figure out if that’s something to worry about,” he says.
Is it okay to have sugar substitutes?
In addition to the latest findings, animal studies have linked sugar substitutes to a number of potential health problems, including weight gain, bladder cancer and cancers. But the findings were in animals, not humans, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says studies on FDA-approved artificial sweeteners “have not shown clear evidence of an association with cancer in humans.”
Jessica Cording, RD, author of The little game changer book, says he generally recommends his patients to minimize the use of non-nutritive sweeteners. “You have to watch them on the same playing field as sugar,” she says. “A little ago a lot and less is more. Surely use them sparingly. “
If artificial sweeteners are an occasional part of your diet, like drinking a diet soda here and there, Cording says it’s “not a cause for concern.” But, if you take non-nutritious sweeteners on a regular basis, you may want to look for alternatives that don’t contain sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are also incredibly sweet, and that can “condition people to crave really sweet foods,” says Cording. “They can really stimulate sugar cravings,” she adds. “This is the main reason why I recommend using them sparingly.”
But Liz Weinandy, a registered nutritionist nutritionist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, cautions against putting too many actions in this particular study. “While these findings are interesting, we have to keep in mind that they are preliminary and we need a lot more research to see if these artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes disrupt the liver’s ability to detox,” she says.
Mason agrees that it is important to limit the use of artificial sweeteners. “Moderation is key when it comes to processed products, including sugar substitutes,” he says. “While using substitutes can be a good way to cut down on sugar calories, many people find greater satiety and satisfaction when they consciously enjoy a small portion of their favorite delicacy, plain sugar.”
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