Low calorie sweeteners — are they safe?

The commonest syndrome in the world is metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is directly related to a genetic condition known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs in 30% of Caucasians, 50% of Asians and close to 100% of people with darker skin. Insulin resistance is associated with tendency to, or frank diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol abnormalities characterised by high triglycerides levels and low HDL (the so-called good cholesterol), abdominal obesity and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Having two or more of these insulin resistance associated conditions constitutes metabolic syndrome. The reality is that well over 1 billion people on the planet have this condition. Being insulin resistant is a survival advantage if you are a hunter gatherer. Why? Because you are a more efficient fat storer for the times when food is not freely available. Also, as a hunter gatherer you are constantly moving, searching for food. Bring in the modern world where we are typically sitting on our backsides all day in sedentary jobs, spending far too much time watching television, along with eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, often with snacks in between.

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Being insulin resistant in the modern environment makes it very easy to gain weight. Insulin basically assists the entry of nutrients into healthy cells and when you are insulin resistant, the pancreas has to make more insulin to push the nutrients into your cells. After years of doing so in a modern environment, the pancreas starts to fail, thus pre-diabetes and diabetes. This also leads to high blood pressure and the cholesterol issues I have mentioned, and it is also very easy to put on fat around the belly. Abdominal fat is not only an ugly lump of lard but also a toxic reservoir holding on to synthetic chemicals through lifetime exposure. This also creates the vicious cycle of more insulin resistance and therefore more metabolic syndrome.

A study just released from George Washington University in Washington DC studied the effects of low calorie sweeteners and metabolic syndrome. They specifically looked at the low-calorie sweetener, Sucralose and found that when human fat cells are exposed to relatively high quantities of low-calorie sweetener, simulating the human experience, this stimulates abdominal fat stem cells to express genes that are linked directly with the production of fat and inflammation. They followed up this component of the study with biopsies of abdominal fat from people who were regular consumers of low-calorie sweeteners.

Interestingly, those people who were healthy weight and consumed low-calorie sweeteners did not have an increased gene expression in the stem cells but the overweight and obese people had a marked increase in gene expression therefore leading to excessive fat production and inflammation.

I’m not suggesting that healthy weight people should be consuming any form of low-calorie sweetener. I am purely stating that those people who already achieved overweightness and/or obesity are further along the spectrum and have now entered the vicious cycle of insulin resistance begetting insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome making metabolic syndrome worse.

There is no doubt that metabolic syndrome is the major epidemic of the 21st century and until we start learning to treat our bodies better we will continue to see rampaging cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, all consequences of metabolic syndrome.