With today marking the start of the sugar tax in the UK, many soft drinks companies have had to choose between two options: charging consumers more, or reducing the sugar content in their products. Many have plumped for the latter, swapping out sucrose and fructose for artificial sweeteners like aspartame, acesulfame K, and sucralose.
Artificial sweeteners have been in use for almost a century, however there is a small but growing body of early-stage research which indicates that (like almost everything we ingest) they can impact on the gut microbiome. While most of these studies have been conducted in animals, and with limited consensus on the specific effects, could there be a risk that the health benefits from the sugar tax may be partially offset by detrimental changes to gut ecology?
Some people think so, proposing that artificial sweeteners, not sugar, might be the driving force behind the rising global rates of obesity and diabetes. Yet the research in this field is limited by a number of factors, not least of which is our poor understanding of the role of and interactions between each species within the human microbiome.
Though we may still be several years away from a fuller understanding of the interaction between artificial sweeteners and the microbiome, the research to date provides a good indication that there's no sure-fire way to cheat our way to healthier living.
Enrichment of bacterial pro-inflammatory genes and disruption in fecal metabolites suggest that 6-month sucralose consumption at the human acceptable daily intake (ADI) may increase the risk of developing tissue inflammation by disrupting the gut microbiota, which is supported by elevated pro-inflammatory gene expression in the liver of sucralose-treated mice.