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If you are diabetic, or if you are making an effort to keep from becoming diabetic, articial sweetners may not be a good idea. The problem may be not so much what they do to you, but what they do to the bacteria that live inside you.

Several years ago I accepted a consulting engagement to help develop a stevia sweetener for sale in a country that had just opened its markets to the South American herb. I am telling the story here with the permission of my client.

There are several challenges to making stevia taste like sugar. Stevia extract, the liquid, is easy to use but has a licorice- or anise-like aftertaste. It is also very easy to get too much stevia into a beverage, and the product doesn't add any bulk to baked goods or pastries or ice creams.

Natural Sweeteners Have to Be Made Unnatural for Practical Use

The way to get around the problem of the licorice-like aftertaste of stevia is to extract a group of chemicals known as the stevia rebaudosides, which are also known as steviol glycosides.

These chemicals taste like sugar, although they don't activate sweetness receptors on the tongue quite as quickly as sugar.

The problem with the rebaudiosides is, however, that they are 20,000 to 50,000 times sweeter than sugar. A tiny amount of the product makes a beverage sweet. Even a tenth of a gram (less than one-hundreth of a teaspoon) would make a cup of coffee or a soft drink undrinkable.

The question then was, how do we dilute stevia extract to make it really useful. We tried a number of substances to make the sweetener until we finally hit on one that actually works: Sugar. If you mix stevia with a little glucose, xylitol, erythritol, or maybe all three, then you can get the right amount of sweetness from a packet of the product.

Of course, adding sugar was exactly what we were trying to avoid. But the fact is, there are tiny amounts of sugar even in most "sugar free" products for the simple reason that otherwise there's no way to mix them. But that's not the only problem.

Causing Diabetes Instead of Preventing It

Dr. Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and his colleagues recently published an article in the prestigious journal Nature about their experiments with mice. They found that artificial sweeteners changed the balance of species of bacteria in the mice's digestive tract in ways that cause blood glucose (sugar) levels to go up more quickly and return to normal more slowly after eating. 

In both mice and people, high blood sugar levels are a driving force for a variety of diseases.

When blood sugar levels are high, the body attempts to lower them (at least, until the onset of diabetes) by producing more insulin.

High insulin levels lock fat inside fat cells so they can't release it to be burned elsewhere in the body. And high insulin levels also cause cells all over the body to protect themselves from an inflowing flood of sugar by becoming "insulin resistant," less responsive to insulin. The pancreas attempts to compensate by producing even more insulin, cells become more insulin resistant, the pancreas produces still more insulin, and over a period of years eventually it "burns out" as insulin-producing beta cells become depleted. Artifical sweeteners accelerate this process by what they do to bacteria in the human gut.

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  • Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, Zilberman-Schapira G, Thaiss CA, Maza O, Israeli D, Zmora N, Gilad S, Weinberger A, Kuperman Y, Harmelin A, Kolodkin-Gal I, Shapiro H, Halpern Z, Segal E, Elinav E. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014 Sep 17. doi: 10.1038/nature13793. [Epub ahead of print]PMID: 25231862.Photo courtesy of Hardworkinghippy via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/hardworkinghippy/2634432687
  • Photo courtesy of JeepersMedia via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/16060088781