Photo of different types of Artificial Sweeteners

10 min read

Artificial Sweeteners & the Microbiome: Can Artificial Sweeteners Harm Your Gut?


Artificial sweeteners offer an exciting promise: sugar-like sweetness with none of the calories. But in our experience, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.


For a long time, researchers assumed that artificial sugars could be the perfect solution to improving American diets notoriously high in sugar. And in many ways, they are. But recent research is raising some concerns about how healthy this alternative might actually be. It turns out that artificial sweeteners could impact your gut microbiome and do more harm than good.


As the food industry continues to pump out artificially sweetened food and drink items, this begs the question: Are artificial sweeteners really the right solution to our sugar addiction?


What Are Artificial Sweeteners?


Artificial sweeteners are man-made sugar substitutes concocted in a lab. They’re over 100 times sweeter than regular sugar and contain little to no caloric content and zero nutritional value. This makes them a popular zero-calorie or low-calorie sugar alternative for products like diet soda.


The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six high-intensity artificial sweeteners for use in food and beverage products:1 2


  • Saccharine
  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K)
  • Sucralose
  • Neotame
  • Advantame

These artificial sweeteners have quickly become an attractive alternative to sugar as scientists continue to learn more about the connection between a high-sugar diet and negative health effects like metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.1


While artificial sweeteners can help reduce your intake of added sugar, we don’t know the full picture of what we’re getting in return. Are they all safe? It is hard to say for sure because there is so little research on their long-term effects.


But what we’re starting to see in more recent studies, is that artificial sweeteners might not be the perfect alternative. It turns out that artificial sweeteners could be contributing to diabetes, obesity, and all the other negative health effects we’re trying to avoid by cutting down on sugar in the first place.1 3 4 And we’re also seeing some problematic results when it comes to artificial sweeteners and your microbiome.


Artificial Sweeteners & the Microbiome


Since most artificial sweeteners pass through the body undigested (hence the zero calories!), it’s easy to assume that they have little to no effect on the body. But current research says that this might not be the case.


Artificial sweeteners could alter your gut microbiota and lead to glucose intolerance, which increases your risk of obesity and other metabolic health concerns.1 4 5 Some of the most popular artificial sweeteners used in sodas, like saccharine, neotame, aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose, are among the biggest culprits when it comes to the possible alteration of your gut microbiota:


  • In one study on saccharine, scientists found that volunteers who consumed the artificial sweetener had decreased glycemic responses due to changes in their intestinal microbiota.1
  • In another study on aspartame and acesulfame-K consumers, research found that overall bacterial diversity varied between those who did and did not consume these artificial sweeteners. This difference suggests that they have some kind of impact on the gut.6
  • A study in Glasgow, UK measured the impact of artificial sweeteners and other common food additives on gut microbiome composition.7 The study found that six of the additives, including aspartame and sucralose, influenced the microbiome and affected the production of short-chain fatty acids, which are nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.8
  • In an experiment on mice drinking high doses of saccharine, sucralose, and aspartame for 11 weeks, researchers found that all mice experienced higher levels of glucose intolerance compared to the control group.9
  • In another study on mice, researchers found that four weeks of acesulfame-K consumption had gender-specific effects. The artificial sweetener created shifts in the gut bacteria of all the mice, impacting their energy metabolism. But in an interesting twist, only the male mice gained weight as a result.4
  • In a four-week study on mice consuming neotame, researchers found that the artificial sweetener impacted the diversity of the mice’s gut microbiome. Some types of bacteria had decreased, while others increased.This type of consumption of neotame appeared to impact the ability of the gut to harvest energy from food, resulting in possible weight gain.10

Keep in mind that these findings are still in the early stages of research, and that we need more time and study to fully understand what’s going on here. But one thing is clear: artificial sweeteners disrupt your gut microbiota.5


They don’t just pass through your body undetected like ships in the night. Like all food, artificial sweeteners have an impact. The exact impact they have is still being researched and analyzed, and until we have the complete picture, we can’t dismiss artificial sweeteners as harmless.


The Microbiome: Why Is It Important?


So what exactly do we mean when we say “gut microbiome”? And why does it matter that artificial sweeteners have an impact on it?


Your microbiome, or gut microbiota, is the community of trillions of bacteria in your body. These bacteria play an important role in not only your digestion but essential functions like your immune, metabolic, and cognitive health. The microbiome is so crucial to the daily function of your body, that it’s even considered a supporting organ.8


This is because a healthy gut can:


  • Break down and extract energy from your food8
  • Deliver nutrients throughout your body11
  • Stimulate your immune system and keep you healthy1
  • Flush out pathogenic organisms from contaminated water or food to prevent you from getting sick8
  • Provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals8
  • Communicate with your brain in what’s called “The Gut-Brain Axis” to help regulate your gastrointestinal, central nervous, and microbial systems12

So, as you can see, it's important to keep your gut healthy and happy. But how do you do that?


The health of your gut depends on factors like your diet, the conditions of your birth, your DNA, and the environment you live in.8 13 Your diet has the biggest impact of them all, and as the saying goes, you are what you eat. And when it comes to your gut, this is actually incredibly accurate.


Data shows that 50% of your gut’s health comes down to your diet. Luckily, it's one of the few factors you have any control over. (You can't exactly go back in time to your birth or switch up your DNA!)


To maintain a balanced microbiome and set yourself up for optimal health, it’s vital to have a varied diet, including lots of fruits, vegetables, protein, and especially high fiber foods like the ones you’ll find in OLIPOP (hint: cassava root, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichoke just to name a few!).


You’ll also want to limit sugar, fat, salt, and should consider reducing your intake of artificial sweeteners. These foods could negatively impact the healthy bacteria living in your gut, throwing your microbiome—and your health!—off balance.


OLIPOP and the Microbiome


Let’s go back to the question we asked at the start of this article: are artificial sweeteners the right solution to our society’s sugar problem?


Based on current research, it seems like more of a bandaid than an actual solution. Choosing a diet soda over a regular soda might limit your sugar intake, but it doesn’t make it healthy. And it certainly doesn’t “solve” the sugar addiction at the heart of so many of our health problems. In fact, research indicates that increased artificial sweetener intake, due to its potency, can make you actually crave sweet things even more!


At OLIPOP we refused to believe that sugar and artificial sweeteners were the only two options when making a delicious and healthy can of soda. There had to be another way to satisfy your sweet tooth without throwing off your gut, or drinking more than your daily limit of sugar in one can.


So we assembled a global team of human gut microbiome research pioneers to craft the seemingly impossible: a gut-healthy and delicious soda. Fast forward a few years later and you have OLIPOP: a new kind of soda with a delicious and nutritious lineup of biome-supporting ingredients. In other words, we help feed those trillions of bacteria living in your body without sacrificing the mouthwatering taste of a can of soda!


While other sodas have 39g of sugar and zero nutritional value, OLIPOP has 2-5g of sugar and a blend of botanicals, plant fibers, and prebiotics. And we don’t use high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners (or artificial anything for that matter!) to give it that soda-sweet taste. We use all natural sweeteners like cassava root syrup, sweet birch, stevia leaf, and natural fruit flavors instead, that occur in nature and don’t have the nasty impact that lab-created artificial sweeteners do.


The Big Takeaway


The jury is still out on the exact role artificial sweeteners play in your gut health. But all food you put in your body has an impact on your microbiome, and artificial sweeteners are no exception. Early research indicates that these artificial sweeteners could be throwing off the diversity of your gut microbiota, which could lead to negative health outcomes.


Instead, it’s important to load up on high-fiber and gut-supporting foods like fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, prebiotics, and protein. Thankfully, you have OLIPOP: a drink that makes it easy to get the nutrients you need without loading up on sugar or artificial sweeteners.


To learn more about the power-packed microbiome-supporting ingredients in OLIPOP, check out our ultimate ingredient guides right on our blog. And pop open a can today to experience the flavors you grew up sipping (like Classic Root Beer or Vintage Cola!) or exciting new flavors (like Ginger Lemon!) and support your gut at the same time.


Sources

  1. Ruiz-Ojeda, F. J., Plaza-Díaz, J., Sáez-Lara, M. J., & Gil, A. (2019). Effects of Sweeteners on the Gut Microbiota: A Review of Experimental Studies and Clinical Trials. Advances in Nutrition, 10(suppl_1), S31–S48. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmy037
  2. “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in Food in the United States.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 8 Feb. 2018, www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states.
  3. Suez, J., Korem, T., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Segal, E., & Elinav, E. (2015). Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. Gut Microbes, 6(2), 149–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/19490976.2015.1017700
  4. Bian, X., Chi, L., Gao, B., Tu, P., Ru, H., & Lu, K. (2017). The artificial sweetener acesulfame potassium affects the gut microbiome and body weight gain in CD-1 mice. PLOS ONE, 12(6), e0178426. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178426
  5. Nettleton, J. E., Reimer, R. A., & Shearer, J. (2016). Reshaping the gut microbiota: Impact of low calorie sweeteners and the link to insulin resistance? Physiology & Behavior, 164, 488–493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.029
  6. Frankenfeld, C. L., Sikaroodi, M., Lamb, E., Shoemaker, S., & Gillevet, P. M. (2015). High-intensity sweetener consumption and gut microbiome content and predicted gene function in a cross-sectional study of adults in the United States. Annals of Epidemiology, 25(10), 736–742.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2015.06.083
  7. Gerasimidis, K., Bryden, K., Chen, X., Papachristou, E., Verney, A., Roig, M., Hansen, R., Nichols, B., Papadopoulou, R., & Parrett, A. (2019). The impact of food additives, artificial sweeteners and domestic hygiene products on the human gut microbiome and its fibre fermentation capacity. European Journal of Nutrition, 59(7), 3213–3230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-019-02161-8
  8. “The Microbiome.” The Nutrition Source, August 16, 2017. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/microbiome/.
  9. International Probiotics Association. (2016, August 15). Fake Sugars Disrupt Blood Sugar Control. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://internationalprobiotics.org/fake-sugars-disrupt-blood-sugar-control/
  10. Chi, L., Bian, X., Gao, B., Tu, P., Lai, Y., Ru, H., & Lu, K. (2018). Effects of the Artificial Sweetener Neotame on the Gut Microbiome and Fecal Metabolites in Mice. Molecules, 23(2), 367. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23020367
  11. Ursell, Luke K, Jessica L Metcalf, Laura Wegener Parfrey, and Rob Knight. “Defining the Human Microbiome.” Nutrition Reviews 70 (August 2012): S38–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00493.x.
  12. Orhan Akpinar, “The Gut-Brain Axis: Interactions between Microbiota and Nervous Systems,” Journal of Cellular Neuroscience and Oxidative Stress 10, no. 3 (August 18, 2018): 783–783, https://doi.org/10.37212/jcnos.610103.
  13. John F. Cryan et al., “The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis,” Physiological Reviews 99, no. 4 (October 1, 2019): 1877–2013, https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00018.2018.
Cheat Sheet
  • Artificial sweeteners are man-made sugar substitutes concocted in a lab
  • Artificial sweeteners could alter your gut microbiota and lead to glucose intolerance
  • All food you put in your body has an impact on your microbiome

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