Are you a visual learner? GOOD NEWS- My podcast “UpliftFit Nutrition” will now be transcribed into blog posts, and we are starting with Ep. 42- Artificial Sweeteners- Evidence Based Truth with Danny Lennon, the owner of Sigma Nutrition and Sigma Nutrition Radio!
*please excuse any typos in this post*
DL= Danny Lennon
Full Transcription: Hey y’all and welcome back to uplift fit nutrition radio. I’m your host, Lacey Dunn, featured registered dietitian. Here’s to spread scientific knowledge in the world of fitness and nutrition. Today I have guest Danny Lennon on board, and we are going to talk all about artificial sweeteners, so let’s jump right in and let’s get started.
LD: OK guys, today we have an amazing guest. His name is Danny Lennon, he runs Sigma Nutrition Podcast and does a variety of different things. He is very knowledgeable, he has a lot of expertise in the fitness, nutrition, all of the above, so Danny why don’t you tell my listeners a little bit about what you do, and what got you started into the fields of science.
DL: Yeah, sure, so thanks for having me Lacey. I’m delighted to be here. I suppose to give people a very brief background, just a few kind of key things. I like you mentioned run a company called Sigma Nutrition which focuses on putting out evidence based information in various different forms, primarily we’re known for the podcast Sigma Nutrition Radio, we also put out articles, do lots of conferences, seminars, workshops, working with personal trainers, gym owners as well as athletes. And we also have a coaching site- the company as well-where we work with people online on their nutrition as well as training programming.
In terms of where my own background before Sigma Nutrition, academically, I have a master’s degree in nutritional sciences from University College Cork and an undergraduate degree in biology and physics. And what really got me into nutrition in the first place was probably, as I think many of us do, was to try and help with my own athletic performance. So I played a lot of sports growing up and various different things I was super interested in, and when I went to college first I was studying science. And so, during that time I started learning more and more about how to read scientific papers and go through journal articles and so on. And kind of as a hobby outside of my studies I was thinking, “OK, well, what things can I read and learn about that may help me in the gym or out on the field?” And that led me to nutrition and some of the stuff I found was fascinating to me at least, and so that got me down the rabbit hole of, as a hobby almost, learning through reading more and more about nutrition to the point where I eventually went back and did a master’s degree in nutrition. So that was the initial thing that sparked off my interest. And once I started doing that though I started to see how much more nutrition gives us to, purely on a performance or recovery from sports, I started seeing how it benefitted my health once I started paying attention to it; health, body composition, how we feel, just general energy levels. When I started to see all of that I saw the true value you can have, and I just wanted to spread more good information because I think there certainly is a lot of confusing and misleading information out there and that’s even growing all of the time. And so that’s the reason behind Sigma Nutrition, of trying to put out objective and honest information to try and balance some of that stuff.
LD: No, I just, like I said before, I just want to thank you so much for doing that. Your podcast is literally my top favorite so, I am just so thankful that you put out incredible information with awesome guests. And what’s funny is that’s exactly how I got into nutrition. How I dove into becoming a registered digestion was from sports and trying to fuel myself for sports, so I feel you on that and I think a lot of people… what they do is they look at food as, you know, just calories in calories out and weight loss, and they don’t recognize is that food is medicine, so I am very happy that it is expanding to taking care of our bodies, to use food as not just fuel but food as a therapeutic tool. So, very excited about that. But let’s dive into today’s topic, which I am super excited about, and we are going to talk all about high intensity sweeteners and their effects on body composition, the microbiota and certain health parameters.
So, first off, for my listeners, high intensity sweeteners are commonly used in foods these days to replace sugar and it helps reduce calories, and these sweeteners are typically, per gram, are sweeter than sugar. So, Danny, do you mind describing a little bit about how the FDA regulates and kind of determines what is safe for high intensity sweeteners?
DL: Yeah, sure, I think that’s actually a good question because much of the time when people get worried about this, I think they don’t take a second to think about where certain recommendations for how much of these things that are in our food supply actually come from. And I think that kind of tends to take away from a lot of, at least the worry people may have. And so, we can go super in depth on this but as a very kind of brief overview of what people need to understand is we have something called an ADI, which is the amount of food additive that can be consumed every day, so daily, for your full life time, without any appreciable health risk. So, we’re trying to get to a point of… how do we assign a value that, if we had this thing, in a certain dose, every single day for as long as we live, we would see no downside for health. And so, one important thing to remember when we’re talking about this ADI value- it’s not a threshold between something that’s safe and unsafe. So as soon as you go past this number suddenly, you’re in grave danger and just anything under this is completely safe. It’s I suppose a whole range but it gives us a very safe margin for error and so what happens is we have another value called the NOAEL, which is the daily amount that if it was consumed in the long term, that we’ve seen in studies that repeated dose studies, which show to have no adverse effects in animals- cause most of these things are going to be trialed in animal studies first for obvious reasons- and so what we’re looking at is, of all the studies we have in animals and all different toxicology studies, what value that we can take on a daily basis over the long term is shown no adverse effects. And so, once we have that value, we actually get the ADI that is recommended for our food supply; we actually apply a safety factor to that. So, it would take that number and typically, it can change with the safety factor… typically it’s around 100. So that means we end up taking that value where we’ve seen clearly if it’s used in rodents or any other kind of animal study model that this value was shown to have no adverse effects over a long period of time in multiple studies. Now we’re going to take that, we’re going to divide it by 100 and now that’s the upper limit we’re going to recommend for the human food supply. And so, it’s quite a large margin of safety. I think once people see that, oh, it’s not actually that kind of huge amount that’s going to be there in the first place, and even beyond that what most of us consume even if we regularly have artificially sweetened foods and beverages in our diet, what we consume on pretty much any sensible diet is going to be well below that kind of current upper limit that is suggested. And even beyond that there’s probably a decent chance that it could still be safe. So that’s where that safety factor comes in and why it’s probably likely that when we do have one of those safety factors at least based on current evidence, it’s pretty well below what has any chance of being detrimental to health.
LD: Yeah, no, thank you so much for describing that. I think a lot of people definitely don’t recognize that, and they just think, “Oh, I’ve had one diet coke today that’s maximized my aspartame intake.” And I went ahead, and I calculated and so if you are a 150-pound person, then you’re around 60 kg, and you are looking at a threshold- upper threshold- of 3,409 milligrams per day to reach the acceptable daily intake. And I don’t know anybody that ever comes close to that amount of aspartame, guys. So, in regards to intake, it’s definitely important to look at the ADI’s and recognize how that is figured out. How they look and how they test, and that it’s… there’s that, like you said, there’s that safety factor.
DL: Yeah, sure, and I think just… you’ve given a great example there. But if people were to think about- let’s say we have an ADI value that’s 40 milligrams per kilogram of your bodyweight every day and that set is that upper value, because of that hundred fold safety factor apply, what that means is even though we’re saying is, “OK, for humans we want to have that upper limit of 40 milligrams for every kilogram of your body weight, what that means is that in all the animal trials we have on this say, in this case a sweetener, we would have tested and seen that in trials- multiple trials, done over a long period of time, that used doses up to 4,000 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight, there was no adverse effects in any of those trials.”
So, it’s quite a large margin of error and again, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect and that there’s no downside ever to any of these things, which I’m sure we might get on to in a while, but it just goes to show that probably the amount that someone’s consuming in a normal diet and a normal amount is going to be, at least for the moment, relatively safe.
LD: Yeah. OK. So, let’s go ahead and dive into the potential issues as well as the benefits. So, as a lot of people know, benefits right away are decreasing your sugar intake, decreasing your caloric intake, so this can have positive effects in regards to body composition. However, it is also seen in literature to have gut microbiota changes, different effects on insulin resistance. So why don’t we dive into that and into the literature from here?
DL: Yeah, sure, so I think like you said there’s always some clear positives, on the surface at least. That if we’re going to be able to reduce the calories and sugar in someone’s diet that can be very beneficial for a lot of people but especially in weight loss attempts. And we actually have literature showing that artificially sweetened drinks for example can be useful in a weight loss attempt. Many reasons probably why beyond just the change in calories, it could be even a psychological perspective of allowing someone to have something sweet tasting to take care of a craving for moment without having to go and eat some sugar. And yeah, like you say, there are some potential downsides that people are probably going to hear quite commonly talked about. Some have more credibility to them than others. So, we make it on to ones that maybe are quite unfounded. But some of the ones that do have literature behind it are a couple that you mentioned, Lacey, so one of the ones that’s most interesting and that has had a few papers come out even just this year has been looking at the effect on the gut microbiome. And in a lot of those studies some of the mechanistic stuff they discuss within those papers talks about if we get these changes in the gut microbiome that also has the potential to induce glucose intolerance. And so, we’ve seen papers, I think one is out of China, another from the US as well both came out this year where they looked at artificially sweetened beverages and foods in rodent models. So, they took mice, looked at them probably over like a three to four-week time frame, and they saw body weight gain in groups that were using these artificially sweetened foods that they would apply in those groups. And they would all of a sudden see clear shifts in the bacterial composition of the gut, so the gut microbiome was changing over the course of the study. And so, what was interesting to think about is that if we do get a change and we see these changes in the gut microbiome and we see changes that are different with glucose intolerance for example, maybe something is going on. However, I think when we’re trying to piece how this plays into potential effects for us as humans, we can go back to a couple of things. We have to think about one, the dosages that are typically used in a lot of these rodent studies. So, if- and this goes for the broader topic of people trying to interpret what we might see in the study- this goes for all research in that you have to remember that a research study s set up to look at a certain variable or a certain concept of a certain study that is to say, we want to see if artificial sweeteners can at all affect the gut microbiome. In order to try and get a study that you’re likely to see some sort of change that you can actually measure and detect you’re going to have to use a high enough amount of that sweetener that’s probably likely going to cause something to happen. Let me use a small bit you might not have to detect given the metrics you’re using. So, the study is set up in such a way that you’re probably going to have a certain dose that’s going to give a response. And so, remember that when you’re looking at, particularly at rodent models, that some of the dosages that if you were to translate over to what that would mean for human are super high and far in excess of what we would ever be taking in our diet. That’s what we see in a lot of the rodent data. The second is kind of a more obvious one, just that how we metabolize things is different to rodents. So, overall, and there’s some clear changes- and this goes for a variety of other nutrients. And so, it’s not to say to write off any of these studies, it’s just to say we can’t make decisions based on our health just purely on rodent data. What those studies and animal studies in general are set up to do is to provide an interesting hypothesis so that we can go test maybe potentially in humans. As of right now, while some of this stuff looks interesting, any time we’ve tried to see some of this effect in… and again, there is very few studies directly looking at this in humans, so we have to be wary but any of the that have looked at it doesn’t show any major detrimental impacts in terms of glucose intolerance or release of insulin or changes in glycemic response and some of the other variables that people talk about when this topic comes up. So, I think as of right now, the way I would intend to look at this research is that artificial sweeteners in rodent models potentially by changing the gut microbiome, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that… that will have any effect when it comes to normal dosages in humans, and so if we do end up seeing lots of overwhelming research that shows that… that is the case, there is a clear health detriment, I’ll be the first one to say, “OK, maybe we need to change our recommendations of how much people should consume.” But as of right now we’re nowhere near that point yet. So, it seems at least on the side of glucose intolerance what you might consume in a normal diet now is probably likely to be fine, but there is some very interesting data in these rodent models.
LD: No I fully agree, and I think it’s very important that people point out the fact that this is always looking in rodent models, for the most part, and you have to look at the variety of factors in those rodent studies, such as those rodents are stressed- so that right there is going to create some inflammatory processes, possibly change the gut microbiota. You got to look at the diet composition for the rats. And then are the rats even doing exercise, or are they just literally sitting there? So, there’s a lot of different factors and we can’t just contribute a rodent model to a human model, so very important there. I was looking at a certain paper that I saw that looked at nonnutritive sweeteners, including aspartame metabolism by changing the host’s metabolic phenotype. So that was interesting but again that was in a rodent study. I know you went over in your Sigma Nutrition Podcast there was a study looking at sucralose versus I think it was aspartame and Acesulfame K, in which the rats were given liquid form(s) and were allowed an ad-libitum diet, correct? And they saw some metabolic marker changes there?
DL: Right. Yeah, so it’s really interesting again. So there is lots of these hypotheses that we can throw up that we do have interest in stuff in some of the rodent models, and one of those hypotheses that’s at least been talked about by some of the researchers and that some of the data point, that maybe could be the case, is why they may potentially be problematic… is this idea that when the body is sensing this level of sweetness, it is essentially preparing itself for an influx of calories to match that. Because typically as we would’ve evolved, if we get this sense of sweetness after consuming something that’s an indication of a certain amount of glucose that we’ve taken in via food and therefore we’re going to prepare the body to deal with that influx of calories and glucose. And so, when we’re not getting that there ends up being this kind of mismatch of what the body is expecting in terms of a calorie and glucose load related to that sweetness but it doesn’t get it and so the kind of hypothesis being that… that can cause issues to our glycemic response to meal exposure over time, in that we end up overshooting or undershooting in different circumstances our insulin response to these different things. So, it kind of makes mechanistic sense-you can kind of put some kind of mechanisms towards that, but again, when you look at human data, everything we’ve seen so far points to a clear study showing that there is no evidence that these sweeteners can actually cause an increase in insulin. So, we looked at that in human models related then to potentially how it affects appetite- so another one that people mentioned, this area, again, no evidence that it increases appetite or increases food intake. So, there’ve been studies that think there’s a group the researchers randomly can monitor so they’ve done a couple of studies in this area again showing that we don’t see any evidence that there’s an increase in appetite or food intake in response to these things. Other than that, we’ve seen other ones that promoted visceral fat gain; doesn’t seem to be any evidence in humans so far… increase in blood pressure; no evidence in humans so far. So, anything that we’ve tried to piece apart in, at least in these kinds of short to intermediate term studies in humans, doesn’t show any effect. And then when we look at the longer-term studies on just overall health, there doesn’t seem to be any particular health risk that we can pin down. So, there’s definitely some interesting stuff going on but like I said previously I think it’s right now, there’s just interesting questions that we have to work out why this is happening. And you’ve mentioned some of the reasons way this could be happening in some of these studies with these rodents. But that might never be the case when we look at humans or it could be. So, the way I’ve tried to explain it to people, and I think the best way to think of this area overall is to think of this on a spectrum because- and this applies to pretty much everything in nutrition- people always argue over to extremes that are either end of the spectrum. In the case of artificial sweeteners, we have on one end people will say artificial sweeteners… they’re extremely dangerous to your health, they can cause you to gain weight, you need to avoid these at all costs. And then at the other end of the spectrum then you have people saying, I am 100% certain that artificial sweeteners are completely inactive, no problems, they never will have any problems, you can consume it in whatever quantity, and there’s zero chances of there being a detrimental effect. That is too far of a statement to make. We don’t know that yet, right? What we can say is somewhere of a middle ground. In that there probably, in the doses we currently take, seems likely they’re not going to be dangerous to our health. They’re not going to cause weight gain, and we don’t need to completely avoid them in the diet. So they may have some uses that predict our taste preference, but in the same time that there’s some interesting stuff going on, there’s rodent models that we should maybe look at in human trials and be open to the, at least the chance, that it could play out, and that there could be a detriment of impact. So, we may have to reevaluate our stance on artificial sweeteners. So, I think, going in with that kind of open mindset is a useful way to view pretty much every topic in nutrition. But artificial sweeteners in particular. And so that’s the way I would currently kind of conclude where I stand on things and I think that’s a safe place to be.
LD: No, that was very well said. One thing I do want to possibly hit on was just one effect that I saw in regards to activating the food reward pathways in the brain. So, I think this is something that of course we can’t dive into, but I just want to say that there has been evidence to where the sweetness is activating those food reward pathways in these mice, and potentially meaning that they’re wanting more… causing them to reach out to go after more of that, either high intensity sweetener… or say if it’s a human, reach out for more sweetness, sugar, wanting more sugar. And that doesn’t mean that potentially they’re just going to gain weight because they have that high intensity sweetener, it might just mean that people reach out to more high palatable foods and increase their weight there. So, I don’t know if I just made that super confusing, but that’s a potential in regards to people intaking more high intensity sweeteners. I think that that could play a potential role if they increase their body weight; it might just be because they have an increase to have more highly palatable foods. So that’s my stance there.
I want to talk a little bit about stevia. Because recently stevia has come out as AGRAS… notice that previously it was not, so meaning that it is now determined safe for foods. And there has been evidence to where stevia can lower insulin and blood glucose levels. So, have you looked into the research on stevia and its effects on the human body and possibly the human gut microbiome or body composition?
DL: Yeah, so, I think that this is again interesting because of it just being I suppose a newer sweetener to the market, especially compared to some of the older ones like aspartame or saccharin, and there’s been… it’s taken a bit of lag time for some of the research to really look at this specifically, but like you mention there’s lots of stuff starting to come through now to the point where it’s been pretty much… we can probably say it’s along the others pretty safe to conclude in the food supply now. In terms of some of the impacts it may have, I haven’t kept up to date with a ton of the more recent stuff specifically on stevia. But on what I have seen I would go along with your assessment; it’s pretty kind of clear that there is some interesting stuff from looking at, maybe, effects on glycemic response, and there are certain kinds of sweeteners along with stevia that people can look at and maybe say have different health benefits. So, particularly when you look at some of the sugar alcohols like xylitol is one that can see being talked about a lot. Potentially there is some benefits as opposed to just being neutral. With stevia, the way… as of right now, when people tend to ask me about it, I think it’s probably safe to use. I don’t have any particular issue with it. I think the kind of major drawback… previously we… probably… just that there’s less research actually done on it specifically compared to say, with something like aspartame, which tends to get a really bad rap from people. But because it’s been around for so long and there’s been so much intense interest in it, it’s the one that’s had by far the most research on it. So, we can actually be a bit more definitive in our conclusions about its safety. Whereas the big thing with stevia was it was more of an unknown because of it was that bit newer… So, what I’ve seen so far, probably, indicates its likely to be safe. There is some interesting stuff in the literature on glycemic response, but I haven’t looked at enough of those papers specifically looking at its ability to change our blood glucose to kind of comment any further than that. There’s probably someone that has a better answer to that.
LD: Yeah, I’ll definitely have to dive more into that myself. And I think that it’s important to point out, in regards to stevia, and in the other artificial sweeteners as well, what a lot of people don’t take into account is the fact that it’s different if you’re getting something just in a diet coke versus in a packet form. So, for my listeners, typically in… say you have a diet coke. That is typically just going to have the high intensity sweetener, such as aspartame. But if you get a packet of Equal, a packet of that aspartame packet, that is typically going to not only have the aspartame, but it’s going to have a little bit of maltodextrin, and normally has another sweetener such as ACE-K. And then you look at stevia, such as Truvia, it’s going to have not only stevia and normally that’s reb-A, it’s not normally a stevia leaf extract, it’s going to contain either maltodextrin or erythritol. So, and I think another thing people don’t take into account, stevia is normally linked with that erythritol and a lot of people don’t recognize that in higher amounts of that, that can potentially cause some stomach issues because, you know, our gut microbiota… they thrive on those sugar alcohols and they will take them and they will ferment them and then we have gas and we have bloating. And a lot of people don’t take that into account. So, what are your thoughts on those other sugar alcohols, and how do you typically suggest them for clients?
DL: Yeah, so, with the sugar alcohols I think typically where I see the ability for people to get really high doses of this, a lot of the times it tends to be if they’re using like, protein bars that are highly sweet with these or use a lot of these sweeteners… to be able to market themselves as a low carb protein bar. And so, depending on the particular brand and the amount that’s in them, you can get a pretty high dose of some of those sugar alcohols in some of these bars. And when you have people that are able to eat three or four of them a day that’s a super high dose. And you end up seeing some things like maybe some gastrointestinal distress from that… a lot of that can be from the type of fiber that’s used in those, too. But there tends to be a case where people might need to reign in or be a bit more wary of the actual dose that you’re using. If it’s not that case, and people are just… so the, I suppose, the other area where they can take in high amounts is if they’re using something like a, xylitol or whatever type of sugar alcohol to sweeten tea and coffee, and like you said they’re getting in a powdered form or a packet, if they’re clocking up quite a lot of beverages per day they can get quite a high dose. I would just get people to be a bit more wary of their intake and…. so just keep an eye on it, see if they have any kind of negative symptoms that, if they feel anything from it, but again if they’re keeping within a, like, any sort of normal intake, there’s no particular one that I tell them they have to be cautious to leave out of the diet… not particularly worried about some of the health effects of those. And the main question that I see from a practical nature, and again I don’t have any clear evidence of this, I don’t even know if there’s research looking at this so, is that people who rely heavily on artificially sweetened drinks and foods all the time can tend to lead to some kind of nutritional habits. So, it’s one thing to have a diet coke now and again or to have a protein bar that has an artificial sweetener, and you’re getting some of those in your diet that way- that’s one thing. But it’s very different if you cannot have any tea, coffee, water, any kind of food without an intense sweetness to it. So, if you cannot just drink a plain glass of water without needing to add say, a zero calorie… cornmeal or squash to it or something to flavor it or if every type of drink you need to have a lot of sweetness, and if your foods- if there’s not sweetness to it- you just find them completely bland, then that might be a case where, purely for yourself, to kind of get readjust to almost eating good quality food. Just lay off them for a while. Get almost re-sensitized to the natural taste of a good quality diet. And that has a quite profound effect, and I’ve certainly found that with myself and for clients in that, trying to use them as something that maybe enhances flavor now and again, but not be reliant on needing them to sweeten absolutely everything. Because… this kind of speaks to the point you talked about earlier, Lacey, with the potential to affect food reward and palatability, if you get into a place where you’re dieting and you need to sweeten absolutely everything with lots of sweetener, when you go back to taking other foods, you’re probably getting more drawn to lots of sugar or at least, sugar-sweetened beverages and foods as opposed to just enjoying the taste of non-sweetened food. And so, that’s one of the kind of upsides to some of the more fad diets that get you to kind of completely restrict foods or ban foods from the diet if they do that with, say, sugar and artificial sweeteners, one thing people start to see is they start to readjust the actual taste of certain vegetables or just generally minimally processed food and we can start enjoying them a bit more. So, purely from an anecdotal point I would say to people, if you are relying heavily on artificial sweeteners even though were saying they’re probably safe and probably fairly benign from a health standpoint of view… I think just as a healthy behavior it’s probably not a good idea to completely be reliant on needing to use them all the time for everything. And I say go through periods where you maybe don’t need them, just use them optionally, just to add a bit of taste.
LD: No, I’m so glad you pointed that out. It’s exactly like caffeine for me- thinking about the more you have, the more you’re going to need to add, because you’re going to increase your tolerance for that taste. I know I’ve seen in my family even, you know, somebody go from, and I don’t want to point which member of my family does it, but somebody go from needing like two packets in their coffee to needing like maybe four or five packets in their coffee. Or even on needing to put it on their rice. So, it’s very important that we know that we can increase our tolerance and that we don’t just put it on everything because we’re meant as humans to have different tastes, different changes in our diets, so just always going towards the sweet, the sweet that’s just going to make you increase your tolerance to the sweet flavor… and you’re just going to want more and more of it. So, I’m very glad that you pointed that out. Because just like caffeine we can have that tolerance level, for sure.
DL: Yeah, yeah, I think caffeine is a great kind of comparison because it’s the same thing as though people who are drinking caffeine. And we look at coffee and studies on caffeine consumption and it seems like coffee is actually a pretty healthy thing for people to consume and it has a lot of correlations at least with health benefits. But the difference becomes… is where if you are getting up in the morning and having a coffee because you really enjoy the taste, you can feel a bit energized, it makes you… puts you in a good mood and you enjoy that, that’s perfectly healthy. But if you are using caffeine as a crutch that you needed to function, that’s kind of a very unhealthy behavior to have. So, while caffeine itself may have a health benefit, you’re using it in a way that’s an unhealthy behavior. And I think the same thing applies here to artificial sweeteners. That you can have… while there may be no real major health downsides to point in humans, if you are using it in a way that’s an unhealthy behavior, i.e., meaning you have to sweeten absolutely everything and you can’t enjoy the normal taste of just real food, then that might be something you need to modify. So, even for a few weeks, laying off them, getting back to normal, just kind of readjusting to real foods.
LD: Very well said. A certain question I have regarding artificial sweeteners and headaches: have you seen anything regarding them activating headaches in humans? Because then we can’t specifically test that on rats.
DL: Right, yes, so this is an interesting one. This one comes up a few times and a lot of questions…. I have this reported to me by a few people who brought it up. So, I kind of wanted to look into it and so it tends to be aspartame as the one that people report with. And this is actually mentioned a few times within the literature as well, and it has people who suffer from migraines were basically put as a group who may benefit from avoiding nonnutritive sweeteners-so artificial sweeteners. So, in some papers for actual recommendations of, in the general populations, probably fine, but some people may want to avoid or look at the amount that they’re consuming. There’s like some at risks groups that they’ll mention some clinical disorders like PKU, maybe in pregnancy, in certain papers it may recommend laying off them for a bit and in some cases people who suffer from migraines regularly. And so, when I started looking around for some journal of medicine, I think it was the New England Journal of Medicine, that I came across, and it kind of gives an alternative explanation for what might be happening. And so, in that study they looked at people who reported having headaches repeatedly after consuming aspartame. And so, when these people knew they were consuming aspartame, 100% of them had headaches, so that’s why they were in this study. They were saying, “Each time I consume aspartame I get headaches.” So, they were recruited as part of this group. So, 100% would get this headache. So, what the researchers did was that they did a double-blind crossover trial, meaning that- so double blind just means that neither the people in the study or the researchers knew which group was getting what at any one time. And after they had done, say, either the placebo group or the group that actually got the sweetener, both of those groups then after a certain period of time would come back and re-do the study but in the opposite group, so everyone got exposed to the same thing. So, they had either a group that was given aspartame or a placebo. And so then, like we said, after they did that, the groups came back later and vice versa went into the opposite group. And so, what they found was that 35% or in around that number had headaches after the aspartame, and 45% had headaches after the placebo, so it was this kind of… this… results that basically showed nothing. Right. It was like completely… chance of what was happening. So, once people didn’t know that they were consuming aspartame or not, they became a whole lot less sure they’re actually getting migraines from it. And so I’m not trying to say that there’s no chance that could happen or if you are someone who, every time you consume it, you definitely get a migraine and you know that yourself, then that’s cool… that’s something you might want to leave out. And if you get a benefit from it then do that. Trust your body number one. But in general, at least what’s in the current literature, there seems to be kind of, some kind of conflicting evidence that people who think they might have issues with it and get headaches from aspartame… actually when they don’t know they’re consuming it actually tend not to. So, I just found that interesting…. So, where I currently stand is, it doesn’t seem to clearly cause migraines, at least, but if someone knows that if every time they have a certain type of drink, that every time they get a really bad migraine after, then just be smart and just… like, don’t take that drink
LD: Yeah, I fully agree. That’s very interesting, and the placebo effect is real, that is for sure.
LD: And I think that’s an important fact to point out that it’s going to be totally individualized. So, it would be fun to have people test and have somebody, you know, cover a drink and tell them whether or not, you know, not tell them if there was artificial sweetener in there, you know, kind of do their own self experiment. But… that would be a little bit hard, and kind of, not pointless but… not really prove anything in regard to their individual effects on the artificial sweetener. I was thinking earlier when I was looking at literature… it would be caused by something in regard to possibly how it’s digested, so we know that aspartame during digestion is metabolized into amino acids as well as methanol. So, my thinking was something in regard to methanol and formaldehyde, potentially causing some changes which somehow causes a headache. That was my thinking. That is not scientifically proven whatsoever, but what are your thoughts on… regards to the methanol produced with aspartame?
DL: Yes, so it’s like you say, you’re absolutely correct instead we get this metabolism at the liver where we have methanol… and so like you said, your hypothesis could 100% be valid… so it’s not something that I’ve seen examined… that would be interesting to see that play out but I mean, it’s certainly a viable hypothesis to test for sure. And kind of going back to your previous point for any given one individual person… like us giving recommendations on general, on what studies say, is a very different thing from what one person may do. And I think that’s a super important point that if we’re talking about general evidence-based recommendations we can say, on the amounts of literature, for most people, it doesn’t seem that aspartame is going to cause a headache even if people suffer from migraines. However, if one person knows that every time, they do something they see a detrimental impact, then that information is more valuable to them than looking at, on average, of what happens in a group of people. And especially when they don’t really care about the mechanism by which this is happening, and they care about, like, do I feel better or worse after doing something? And so, if it’s easy and easily modifiable then, for any one individual, do what is going to work for you. But when making general recommendations it’s a different issue. So, going back to your earlier question I think you’re totally right with the kind of… incomplete absorption and, then, therefore methanol and so on… I think… that’s a viable thing, and that could cause an issue, but I just haven’t looked into potentially how that would play out, if we even have research right now that examines- does that play out that way.
LD: Yeah, I’ve looked a little bit into the research… the enzyme responsible for the metabolism of methanol is species-dependent and I know that in primates methanol is metabolized into formaldehyde in the liver by alcohol-dehydrogenase and then in rodents which, a lot of the studies are done in rodents, it’s mainly metabolized by alcohol-catalase… so it’s very different to test this in rats and then apply that to humans because we have different enzymes. And… our liver is definitely a lot larger and it has to do with a whole other… things coming into our bodies so-
DL: For sure.
LD: It would be really hard for somebody to take and do a study and see the effects with methanol on a rat specifically and apply it to a human but… I would be interested to see what happens.
DL: Yeah, for sure, I mean, it makes sense, and I think you make another great point on why we need to be careful with rodent studies because of those changes in our differences in metabolism, like you say. Yeah, that’s certainly a really interesting one and yeah, if you see anything please let me know. It certainly sounds like it could be viable for sure.
LD: I sure will. Alright, well, I have taken a lot of your time, but I just want to thank you again for coming on my podcast, for sharing all your knowledge and your expertise. And if there is anything… any one thing that you can tell somebody in regards to nutrition, what would that be in regards to maintaining a healthy and happy body?
DL: Oh, that’s a good one…. I would say to view things from a… or avoid viewing things from an all-or-nothing mentality. In that, it’s not going to be tiny little details that are going to wreck your health and your body composition in the long term. There’s going to be a few core principles of nutrition that you need t get right consistently or do them good enough for the majority of the time, and if you do that you will be perfectly fine as opposed to sweating over the tiny, tiny little details. And there is a point of diminishing returns almost, of that, especially as we learn more and more stuff, it’s really fascinating and a lot of times I love learning about all the little details….
But of what actually really matters to do all of the time, it gets to the point where those smaller details, to some degree, don’t really matter that much and are more like, just, interesting to know and kind of play around with. But the kind of core fundamental stuff isn’t going to change, and it’s all those stuff that people have heard before, that’s not super exciting. And so for example, I always talk to people that the more we look at, like, the gut microbiome and the effects of prebiotic fiber, butyrate production, or if we look at compounds like resveratrol, and how it affects the longevity and how it changes gene expression on all these different proteins, all these different, like, really in depth stuff we can look at, when we start to take that stuff and peel back- ok what does this mean from, like, a first principles perspective of… my diet; what do I need to do? So much of the time it comes back down to… eat a variety of different vegetables, like the most basic, basic nutrition recommendation that everyone has heard, right? Just eat more vegetables. And that’s where all of this stuff comes down to so often. And that’s just one example. There’s others. So, definitely, like, generally, eating good quality food most of the time to overly sweat about having some treat foods now and again is not going to kill you… make sure you’re physically active in general, try and do as regularly as it’s practical for you… sleep… and pay attention to sleep… and like, those few core things, and then the rest is as much as you want to go into for yourself. But don’t make it-don’t wreck your sanity of trying to chase smaller details.
LD: No, very well said. I think… in regard to what you pointed out don’t be so- don’t take little details and think of it as all or nothing. Say this ingredient comes out and it lowers your insulin levels. Well, guys, exercise lowers your insulin levels. Exercise has effects on your gut microbiota. So… there’s a lot of things that we have to remember and put it into the correct context, that’s for sure.
Thank you so much again. If there’s any, well, as they know, you have Sigma Nutrition Radio, but maybe can you tell my listeners where they can find you, maybe even reach out if they want some coaching? Just let my listeners know where they can find you and then we are sadly good to go.
DL: Awesome, yeah, thanks so much Lacey. If you want to find more of my content, they can just go to sigmanutrition.com If they’re specifically looking for a podcast then just search Sigma Nutrition Radio. And pretty much any podcast app you can find it. On iTunes, we’re on Spotify, etcetera. And then, if they’re looking to send me a question, either they can find my email address on the website or find me on social media. So, I’m on all the usual places. They can find the Sigma page on Facebook or my personal account- just Danny Lennon. I’m on Instagram @dannylennon_sigmanutriton. And then I’m on twitter as well, if you just put in my name you should find me there. And yeah, that’s pretty much it. Any of those places, if people want to ask me a question, I’m more than happy to help. And I hope people took something useful from this.
LD: Yeah! Thank you so much for your time, hopefully my listeners, you guys learned something you’re able to take away what Danny has said and applied into your life- or just let people know in regard to the safety of artificial sweeteners and potential changes. So, thank you so much again Danny for your time and I hope you have such a fabulous day.
DL: A real pleasure thanks so much for having me.
LD: Thank you. Bye.
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