Potential dangers of artificial sweeteners to gut bacteria

July 16, 2021 in Gastrointestinal Health, Nutrition Topics in the News

Potential dangers of artificial sweeteners to gut bacteria

New research from Anglia Ruskin University has discovered that common artificial sweeteners can cause previously healthy gut bacteria to become diseased and invade the gut wall, potentially leading to serious health issues.

The study is the first to show the pathogenic effects of some of the most widely used artificial sweeteners - saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame - on two types of gut bacteria, E. coli (Escherichia coli) and E. faecalis (Enterococcus faecalis).

Previous studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can change the number and type of bacteria in the gut.

This new research, however, has demonstrated that sweeteners can also make the bacteria pathogenic. The study found that these pathogenic bacteria can attach themselves to, invade, and kill, epithelial cells that line the wall of the intestine (called Caco-2 cells).

It’s known that bacteria such as E. faecalis, which cross the intestinal wall, can enter the bloodstream and congregate in the lymph nodes, liver and spleen, causing a number of infections including septicaemia.

This new study discovered that at an amount equivalent to two cans of diet soft drink, all three artificial sweeteners significantly increased the adhesion of both E. coli and E. faecalis to intestinal Caco-2 cells, and differentially increased the formation of biofilms. 

Bacteria growing in biofilms are less sensitive to antimicrobial resistance treatment and are more likely to secrete toxins and express molecules that can cause disease.

Additionally, all three sweeteners caused the pathogenic gut bacteria to invade Caco-2 cells found in the wall of the intestine; saccharin which had no significant effect on E. coli invasion.

The lead researcher said, "there is a lot of concern about the consumption of artificial sweeteners, with some studies showing that sweeteners can affect the layer of bacteria which support the gut, known as the gut microbiota.”

This study is the first to show that sweeteners most commonly found in food and drinks - saccharin, sucralose and aspartame - can make normal and 'healthy' gut bacteria become pathogenic. These pathogenic changes include greater formation of biofilms and increased adhesion and invasion of bacteria into human gut cells. 

These changes could lead to our own gut bacteria invading and causing damage to our intestine, which can be linked to infection, sepsis and multiple-organ failure. 

Source: International Journal of Molecular Sciences, May 15, 2021.

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