Aspartame: Raise Diabetes Risk By As Much As 56%

| March 21, 2013

Several large studies have linked the consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks with the global rise in obesity and diabetes and many of us now favour the sugar-free kind, which contain artificial sweeteners, like aspartame. However, a new study from France suggests that these “diet” drinks could actually make you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than the regular versions.

Researchers from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research investigated the rates of diabetes among women who drank either regular or diet carbonated drinks and those who drank only unsweetened fruit juice1. They monitored the diet and health records of more than 66,000 women over a period of 14 years and found that those who habitually drank up to 359ml of any type of fizzy drink a week – just more than one normal sized can – were on average a third more likely to develop the disease than those who only consumed juice. The risk rose to more than double in those who drank 600ml a week.

The biggest surprise, though, was that the diabetes risk was higher in women who drank only artificially-sweetened beverages than in those drinking the sugar-sweetened kind. Compared with women who drank no fizzy drinks, those consuming only “diet” drinks had a 56 per cent higher risk of the disease, while in women who drank sugar-sweetened beverages the risk rose by 34 per cent. These findings go against the conventional view that “diet” drinks are a healthier option and also contradict the findings of some previous studies.

The researchers drew attention to previous research showing that aspartame, which is widely used as a sweetener in no-sugar fizzy drinks, has a similar effect on blood glucose and insulin levels as the sucrose used in regular versions. The effect appeared to be compounded by the fact that women who favoured “diet” drinks tended to consume more of them: 2.8 glasses a week on average compared to 1.6 glasses for drinkers of the sugar-sweetened versions.

Although aspartame has a much lower calorific value than sugar, it has been shown in clinical trials to push up insulin and blood glucose levels following a meal in the same way as sucrose and considerably more than the natural sweetener stevia2. When men were given a pre-dose of aspartame before lunch, their insulinogenic index, showing the ratio of insulin to glucose in their blood, 60 minutes after the meal, was higher than in men given a similar pre-dose of sucrose.

Aspartame could be as bad for your brain as for your blood sugar

In animal studies, mice that were fed aspartame had higher fasting blood glucose levels and showed a greater degree of insulin resistance than controls. Aspartame has also been linked in some research studies to brain and nerve diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, dementia, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, although controversy still rages over its possible role in these conditions.

Clearly, it is best to avoid all carbonated beverages as far as possible, whether they are sweetened with sugar or with artificial sweeteners. Your taste buds will gradually adapt and will stop expecting the stimulation of a sweet taste. Drink plain water instead or, even better, green tea, which has a lowering effect on blood sugar. If you can’t do without something fizzy that tastes sweetish, try soaking a couple of liquorice and mint herbal tea bags in a glass of fizzy mineral water!

Shortly after aspartame first came onto the market in the 1980s, a number of studies linked it to damage to the pancreas, including acute pancreatitis. Those findings have been largely forgotten today, but they could mean that the sweetener is especially harmful for people with diabetes who already have compromised pancreatic function.

Recently, another class of substances was linked to pancreatitis – the new diabetes drugs called “glucagon-like peptide-1-based therapies” (GLP-1). These medications, which include drugs called sitagliptin and exenatide, make you twice as likely to find yourself in hospital with pancreatitis, compared with other blood sugar lowering medications, according to a new report. That will be the subject of my next blog post.

Wishing you the best of health,

Martin Hum
PhD DHD Nutritionist
for Real Diabetes Truth

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1. Fagherazzi G, Vilier A, Sartorelli D, Lajous M, Balkau B, Clavel-Chapelon F. Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013; Jan 30 (Online ahead of print).

2. Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, Coulon S, Cefalu WT, Geiselman P, Williamson DA. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010; 55(1):37-43.

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