Since their inception, artificial sweeteners have been hailed as a boon to weight loss. Their health benefits have been questioned, but their weight loss benefits have only recently come under fire. Opponents of artificial sweeteners believe that they can trigger a response that increases insulin release, which can cause weight gain, rather than loss. Proponents firmly stand behind the idea that substances that contain little to no calories cannot trigger an insulin response.
Insulin, a hormone released from the pancreas in response to glucose entering the bloodstream, assists cells in absorbing glucose for energy. Insulin plays an essential part in carbohydrate use. But too much insulin release -- which occurs when high levels of glucose in the bloodstream continually stimulate the pancreas to produce more insulin -- leads to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Cells become resistance to insulin, so more insulin must be produced to remove glucose from the bloodstream. Artificial sweeteners do not contain carbohydrates and should not stimulate insulin release.
The theory behind the idea that artificial sweeteners can trigger an insulin rise states that sweet foods or substances set off a chemical reaction that leads to insulin release, even when no carbohydrate is consumed. Other theories are based on the fact that people who drink more diet sodas gain more weight than people who don’t. However, there may be many reasons unrelated to an insulin spike for this, including the fact that people who drink diet soda may compensate by eating more elsewhere, states Howard Eisenson, M.D. of Duke University states.
A Japanese animal study reported in the April 2009 issue of “PloS One” found that artificial sweeteners sucralose, saccharin and acesulfame-K stimulated sweet taste receptors that induced an insulin response. This study did not aspartame, the most frequently used artificial sweetener in the United States. A 1989 study reported in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” which was supported by funds from NutraSweet, which contains aspartame, found no rise in insulin levels after aspartame ingestion. An abstract presented at the June 2009 Annual Meeting of the Endocrine Society by the National Institutes of Health reviewed data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Researchers found that people who used artificial sweeteners were twice as likely to develop diabetes as well as higher fasting insulin levels.
Despite the current controversies, the University of California, San Francisco Diabetes Teaching Center states that artificial sweeteners do not raise blood sugars and have been shown safe to consume through U.S. Food and Drug Administration testing. Duke University endocrinologist Ann Brown, M.D., states that as of 2011 there was no proof that drinking diet soda causes metabolic syndrome, a constellation of symptoms often related to increased insulin levels.