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Across research studies, popular artificial sweeteners don’t raise glucose levels

Published May 22, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – For many people with diabetes or those trying to control their weight, non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners are often considered a safe and healthy option to help avoid sugar consumption. They add a sweet taste to food or beverages, while adding few (or no) calories to the diet.

There is well-documented research on the health risks of sugar consumption in terms of child and adult obesity, but studies are ongoing to provide conclusive evidence that non-nutritive sweeteners offer benefits toward weight management or other health benefits.

Among the concerns is whether non-nutritive sweeteners raise glycemia— the glucose level in the blood. Two food science and human nutrition researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed current research on four of the most popular non-nutritive sweeteners to find a conclusive answer.

Results from their study show that non-nutritive sweetener consumption doesn’t elevate blood glucose levels.  

“It has been assumed in the literature for a long time that non-nutritive sweetener consumption wouldn’t affect your fasting blood glucose levels, but there’s never been a meta-analysis to determine if this is actually true,” explains Alexander Nichol, co-author of the study and master’s student in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. “I see it all the time in research papers where people will mention that non-nutritive sweeteners don’t affect blood glucose levels, and now we hope our study can be used as a reliable reference.”

Nichol and colleague, Maxwell Holle, wanted to conduct a systematic review of current research findings on the use of non-nutritive sweeteners in humans. They wanted to look at the glycemic response specifically to the non-nutritive sweeteners, so they only included studies in which participants had fasted before consuming the sweeteners. In addition, the sweeteners could not have been consumed as part of another beverage or food in the study.

“A lot of research will focus on giving you the non-nutritive sweetener in addition to a meal, and the additional calories can really impact the glycemic response. So we excluded a lot of studies that added a non-nutritive sweetener to a food or a drink that had additional calories,” Holle, a doctoral candidate in food science and human nutrition at U of I, explains.

In total, the researchers’ analysis included 29 trials, with a total of 741 participants. The sweeteners represented in the studies included aspartame, saccharine, steviosides, and sucralose. The meta-analysis tracked blood glucose levels over 210 minutes after the consumption of a non-nutritive sweetener.

They found that these sweeteners, overall and at various time points, didn’t affect glycemia—didn’t raise glucose levels. While they did see a decline in glycemia for some participants (depending on additional characteristics such as diabetic state, age, etc.), Nichol says this is most likely because of the prolonged fasting, not because of the sweetener consumption.

The findings have more value for ongoing studies looking at the use of non-nutritive sweeteners, but Nichol says the study can offer some confidence to those concerned about these sweeteners. “Our paper shows that if people drink something artificially sweetened alone, their blood glucose levels will not change. In our research and in others’ labs, we are continuing to look at sweetener consumption along with a meal to see how they affect post-meal glycemia. That is different than what we’re showing in the paper because those are two different states that the body can be in.”

The paper, “Glycemic impact of non-nutritive sweeteners: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials,” is published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Co-authors include Alexander D. Nichol, Maxwell J. Holle, and Ruopeng An, all of the University of Illinois. Nichol is a master’s student and Holle a doctoral candidate in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I.