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Can you use artificial sweeteners?

Published December 14. 2013 09:00AM

The after-school meeting caught me by surprise. And then I surprised those attending the meeting.

Not only did I arrive a bit late, but I was also carrying a partially consumed 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi Max.

My principal, who was relatively new at the time but well aware of my nutritional beliefs, remarked that she never thought she'd ever see me drink a diet soda. When someone else echoed that sentiment, I felt the need to explain.

I planned to do a hard, two-hour long bicycle ride after the meeting, I said. Since I don't consume caffeine on a daily basis, the 98 milligrams of it in a pint of Pepsi Max is just enough to enhance my performance.

But diet sodas have artificial sweeteners, somebody said.

I acknowledged that, but said no more. I wanted to be riding in an hour, about the time caffeine reaches its peak concentration in the bloodstream, and there's so much conflicting research on artificial sweeteners that I know not to broach the topic if I'm pressed for time.

The reason why is simple. Millions of dollars are at stake what the manufacturer of a new artificial sweetener could easily make and the sugar industry could easily lose if a new sweetener meets with only moderate popularity so you need to read the research with a discerning eye.

This doesn't mean that researchers lie. What it means is that studies can be constructed in such a way that their results may not really assess the situation or directly apply to you.

Last May, for instance, the journal Diabetes Care published research performed at Washington University School of Medicine that found the use of one artificial sweetener, sucralose, affects insulin secretion.

This finding is significant. People usually use artificial sweeteners not only to limit their use of sugar but also to consume fewer total calories.

But in the University of Washington study, when compared to the levels recorded when the 17 severely obese subjects who didn't normally use artificial sweeteners and did not yet have diabetes consumed only water, sucralose added to water increased blood insulin levels. Since insulin removes blood sugar from the blood, a feeling of hunger normally follows.

Hunger leads to more eating and additional insulin secreted. Since excess insulin secretion can lead to type 2 diabetes, the fear is that the use of artificial sweeteners especially in diet sodas may be partially responsible for the recent and dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes.

Before you rip through your cabinets removing any food that contains sucralose, consider the constraints of the study.

Only subjects who were severely obese were used. Obesity alone can adversely affect many facets of metabolism.

Also recognize that the goal of the study was to determine if insulin or blood sugar levels are affected by the combination of sucralose and glucose (i.e., normal, processed sugar). Because of this, in all testing the 17 severely obese subjects consumed glucose after the water or water-sucralose combination.

So people who are relatively thin and consuming sucralose without consuming sugar afterwards can't really take much from this study but the headlines the research produced might make them eschew sucralose.

Or totally confuse them.

That's because another study published a few months earlier in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined diet drinks probably the greatest source of artificial sweeteners do not increase appetite or cause people to consume sugary or fatty foods.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health observed 318 overweight or obese adults who habitually consumed more than 280 calories in sugary drinks daily. Half of the subjects replaced at least two daily servings of sugary drinks about 240 calories with Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Lipton Tea, or Diet Coke while the other half replaced the sugary drinks with water.

No other conditions were placed on any of the subjects, and all reported their food and water intake on two different days at the three-month and six-month mark of the study.

This data revealed that both groups lowered their daily total caloric intake by just about 300 calories and that both groups consumed comparable amounts of fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. In essence, this study refutes the claim that consuming diet sodas increases your desire to eat bad stuff.

But it doesn't address the issue of whether or not the ingredients found in diet sodas are bad for your health.

Recently, Will Brink, one of the true leaders in the field of nutrition and sports performance field, posted a video addressing that question. His advice is, in essence, the same as mine.

In moderation, the use of diet sodas is almost always fine.

While there's always a minute percentage of the population that will have an adverse reaction to the chemicals added to any processed foods the same can be said of many natural foods you probably can consume two or three diet sodas a week, probably even one a day, and never suffer a single negative consequence.

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