In the last few decades, artificial sweeteners have hit the markets hard as an outlet for people trying to control their calorie intake. But these synthesized sugars may increase the risk of diabetes, a preliminary study reported.

In the research, published in the journal Nature, researchers from Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that artificial sweeteners appear to disrupt the flora of bacteria residing in the intestines, which could cause blood sugar levels to rise. Despite the troubling finding, other nutritionists say the research must be replicated before firm conclusions can be drawn.

The research

The study was triple-pronged. In the first part, researchers examined a diet study of 400 people, finding that those who consume the most artificial sweeteners were more likely to have problems controlling blood sugar.

Next, seven people who did not normally consume artificial sweeteners were tracked intensively for a week as they were fed controlled amounts of saccharine. Four of the seven developed significant increases in blood sugars.

Third, mice that were fed the sweetener saccharine had big increases in their blood sugar levels, while mice with no gut microbes did not have jumps in blood sugar when they were fed artificial sweeteners.

"We demonstrated that the bacteria could cause changes that would cause disturbances in glucose levels," said study coauthor Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute.

More specifically, depending on the types of microbes they had in their intestines, some people and animals had a two- to four-fold increase in blood sugars after consuming the artificial sweeteners for a short time.

"The magnitude of the differences were not just a few percentages," Eran Segal, a study co-author who is a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute, told USA Today. "These were actually very dramatic differences we saw both in the mice and in the human settings."

Words of advice

The benefits and risks of artificial sweeteners have been debated for years. Some studies have shown no link to diabetes, while others suggest otherwise.

Elinav, who studies the links between an individual's immune system, gut microbes, and health at the Weizmann Institute, said that at the end of the day, the verdict has yet to be decided. But for the diabetic diet, these sweeteners should be on the what-to-watch list.

"I think this issue is far from being resolved," Elinav concluded.

To learn more about diabetes and artificial sweeteners:

Artificial Sweeteners: Not as Diabetic-Friendly as You Thought
Diabetic Diet: The Skinny On Natural Sweetener Swerve
Two Sides to the Artificial Sweetener Story