The study, published in the journal Microbiome, was supported by institutional funds from The National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and Advent-Health.
Saccharin and public health perception
Saccharin (one of the six artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA) is a zero-calorie, high-intensity, artificial sweetener 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose) and has been used in formulations to sweeten beverages, jams, and baked goods. Its brand names include Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet'N Low, and Necta Sweet.
While approved and deemed safe by the FDA, saccharin has been a subject of controversary in the public health community. Past studies have linked the consumption of saccharin to serious negative health outcomes such as the development of diabetes.
"Previous studies elsewhere have suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners is associated with metabolic syndrome, weight gain, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. These findings have raised concerns that consuming them may lead to adverse public health outcomes, and a lack of well-controlled interventional studies contributed to the confusion," said study author Joan Serrano, a researcher in the department of biological chemistry and pharmacology at Ohio State.
"It's not that the findings of previous studies are wrong, they just didn't adequately control for things like underlying health conditions, diet choices and lifestyle habits," added George Kyriazis, assistant professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology at Ohio State and senior author of the study.
"By studying the artificial sweetener saccharin in healthy adults, we've isolated its effects and found no change in participants' gut microbiome or their metabolic profiles, as was previously suggested."
For their study, researchers collaborated with Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, Ohio State's College of Arts and Sciences, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California and the Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes at Advent-Health in Florida.
A total of 46 healthy adults ages 18-45 with a body mass index of 25 or less completed the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
Participants ingested capsules that contained the maximum acceptable daily amount of either saccharin (400 mg per day), or lactisole (a sweet taste receptor inhibitor), or saccharin with lactisole or a placebo every day for two weeks.
At the end of the two weeks researchers found that the artificial sweetener did not affect glucose tolerance or confer other apparent adverse health effects.
"Sugar, on the other hand, is well-documented to contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes," Kyriazis said.
"So when given the choice, artificial sweeteners such as saccharin are the clear winner based on all of the scientific information we currently have."
Researchers also tested for 10 weeks the effects of even higher doses of saccharin in mice that genetically lack sweet taste receptors, and came to similar results: the artificial sweetener did not affect glucose tolerance, or cause any significant gut microbiota changes or apparent adverse health effects.
Researchers added that more research over a longer period of time is needed to draw further conclusions about the consumption of saccharin on health outcomes.
Do consumers want artificial sweeteners?
Despite these findings, it appears that artificial sweeteners still face consumer perception challenges and a shrinking market.
According to Mintel research, the market for naturally sweetened low-sugar products (expected to reach $36bn over the next three years) is nearly four times larger than the artificially sweetened low-sugar market.
Additionally, Mintel found that more than two-thirds of consumers agree it is essential that sugar or sweetness comes from natural sources.