Throughout the last decade, especially seven years of being gluten free, many friends and family have [lovingly] razzed me for my scientific and analytic approach to eating and food choices.

Quite possibly, I have also been blamed for changing their perspective (read also “ruining their view”) on some of life’s simple pleasures. A perfect example would be my scrutiny of ice cream formulations (see previous column). I like to consider it more education than deprivation. Of course, I am not suggesting snubbing ice cream forever, but rather advocating to make a more reasoned and intentional choice in the selection of said treat: more simple recipes sans the chemical additives.

With this edition of my column, I want to poke holes in another class of substances that make frequent appearances on ingredient labels — that would be artificial sweeteners. Also known as noncaloric artificial sweeteners (NAS), these were introduced more than a century ago as means for providing sweet taste to foods without the associated high energy content of caloric sugars. Common NAS are aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame and acesulfame potassium-k (ace-k). NAS consumption gained much popularity owing to their reduced costs, low caloric intake and (once) perceived health benefits. For these reasons, NAS were increasingly introduced into commonly consumed foods, such as diet sodas, cereals and sugar-free desserts.

Artificial sweeteners have become increasingly controversial due to their questionable influence on consumers’ health. They are introduced in many foods and many people consume this added ingredient without their knowledge. Currently, there is still no consensus regarding the health consequences of artificial sweeteners intake as they have not been fully investigated. Consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked with adverse effects such as cancer, weight gain, metabolic disorders, type-2 diabetes and alteration of gut microbiota activity. Moreover, artificial sweeteners have been identified as emerging environmental pollutants, and can be found in receiving waters, surface waters, groundwater aquifers and drinking waters.

Most NAS pass through the human gastrointestinal tract without being digested by the host (hence noncaloric) and thus directly encounter the intestinal microbiota, also known as the bacteria or “bugs” in the gut, which I also have written about previously. Herein lies a major concern with these noncaloric artificial sweeteners. In a recent study, the relative toxicity of six FDA-approved artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and ace-k) and that of 10 sport supplements containing these artificial sweeteners were tested. The bacteria found in the digestive system became toxic when exposed to concentrations of only 1 mg/mL of the artificial sweeteners, a surprisingly small amount. The lead researcher of this study concluded, “This is further evidence that consumption of artificial sweeteners adversely affects gut microbial activity, which can cause a wide range of health issues. The results of this study might help in understanding the relative toxicity of artificial sweeteners and the potential of negative effects on the gut microbial community as well as the environment.”

In another recent study, researchers concluded from studies of mice that ingesting artificial sweeteners might lead to — of all things — obesity and related ailments such as diabetes. This study was not the first to note this link in animals, but it was the first to find evidence of a plausible cause: the sweeteners appear to change the population of intestinal bacteria that direct metabolism, the conversion of food to energy or stored fuel. And this result suggests the connection might also exist in humans. These researchers surmised in their paper that artificial sweeteners “may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight” — that is, the sweeteners may be making at least some of us heavier and more ill.

What is the take home message? Research and data come fast and furious, industry change comes much slower. Do not expect major changes from the food industry any time soon. One must arm themselves with knowledge and make their own strategic choices and changes. As with my previous articles, I encourage people to start reading labels closer. Of the six NAS studied above, the most common are: aspartame (also branded as NutraSweet or Equal), saccharine (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) and ace-K (not necessarily recognized as a brand, but is included in many energy and sports drinks). Be aware of the ubiquitous use of these sweeteners and know that they are lurking in surprising places. And with the pervasive use, amassing potentially unhealthy levels could be unexpectedly easier than realized. Note that in the studies about, the amounts needed to be toxic to bacteria are quite low.

What was once thought “healthy,” could actually be causing the diseases and conditions that were trying to be prevented. And it may have more to do with our friendly bug companions in our gut than we imagined. Think of your intestinal friends the next you go to grab a diet soda, energy drink or “sugar-free” snack. Possibly you will also blame me (or thank me) for changing your outlook.

Jerod Work is chief scientist of entregro health, a health and nutritional supplement company based in Sioux Center.