My gut feelings on artificial sweeteners–sometimes solutions lead to more problems

Are artificial sweeteners linked to increased cancer risk?

We all know that cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. In fact, two out of five people are expected to be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. Most of us probably know someone who is living or has lived with cancer, whether that be a family member, friend, or a teacher. Luckily, there are steps we can take to better our odds.


Colorectal cancer (CRC), specifically, is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer across Canada with approximately 24,800 Canadians diagnosed in 2021. Closer to home, the burden of CRC is particularly evident in New Brunswick, as it is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the province. This alarming trend is only projected to increase over the coming years.


Previous studies have shown that colorectal cancer incidence can be largely attributable to unhealthy lifestyle and behaviour patterns like being overweight and obese. For example, people with a higher body mass index (BMI) are about 30% more likely to develop CRC than people within the healthy BMI range. Beyond that, a higher BMI is also associated with increased risks of developing other types of cancers and chronic diseases.


With the potential to combat the increasing threat of obesity and its associated health risks, artificial sweeteners quickly made their mark in the market of sugar-free food and beverages as a safe and effective alternative for sugar. But this has led researchers to ask, is the solution too good to be true?


A recent study out of the Harbin Medical University in China suggests that the no-calorie sweeteners represent a catch-22 scenario. Despite being tested to be safe to use as food additives for decades, the researchers’ findings suggest that mice with diets high in artificial sweetener had significant increases in gut inflammation and damage, and we know that these impacts are high risk factors for CRC. Therein lies the dilemma. What if the side effects of the solution to the first problem land you right back at square one?


As a biology student here at Mt. A with a personal interest in gut health, this sparked my curiosity–how do these artificial sweeteners affect gut health and contribute to the development of colorectal cancer tumours?


This is where my honours project at Mt. A, this summer, comes in. Under the supervision of Dr. Jillian Rourke, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, whose research also traditionally focuses on how artificial sweeteners contribute to metabolic dysfunction and affect cellular health. Together we will tackle the question of how artificial sweeteners activate the sweet-taste-sensing receptor, affectionately known as GPR52, and to what extent the sweeteners promote inflammation and damage in the gastrointestinal lining.


“For some time, researchers have suspected that sweeteners might have activity in the body by binding to these receptors, but none had been identified so it was difficult to sort out how these sweet molecules were influencing health,” said Dr. Rourke. “Finding this receptor [GPR52] is an important first step that will allow us to make connections on the molecular level to explain how these sweeteners are increasing colorectal cancer risk.”


This research is especially important given the widespread consumption of artificial sweeteners in our community. Our hope is that it can spur more research to help bring about the development of new artificial sweeteners that have the benefits of reducing our caloric intake but also avoid the negative metabolic side effects. It could also lead to new drug targets and therapeutic approaches to potentially cure chronic inflammatory bowel diseases and colorectal cancer.


Beyond my own curiosities as a researcher, this study is particularly calling to me because my sister, JiYu, was diagnosed with an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in 2019. Knowing what impacts gut health, and what can be to lessen the threat of colorectal cancer will go a long way in helping people, like JiYu, make informed choices in their diets that can help keep them healthy. No doubt, many of us have people in our lives that want to make better choices for their health, but they just need the science of it all to help show them the way.


So where does this leave us right now? Currently, we do not know what the long-term health impacts of artificial sweeteners are, or if they affect individuals differently. So where does this leave us? While you might not be able to eliminate artificial sweeteners from your diet entirely, there are things you can do in the meantime while we work on a clearer answer. The best advice is often to keep ahead of the curve–talk to your doctor and stay up to date with your cancer screenings. Screening is especially important for colorectal cancer as it can be caught early and prevented. “I was able to detect my IBD symptoms early and get the appropriate treatment to achieve and maintain remission,” says JiYu, “and I will continue to be proactive with my colon cancer screenings.”


We all want to keep our loved one, and ourselves, healthy. When we hear things about cancers, or diseases in general, it is easy for us to get worried and frustrated—especially when a solution is not super straightforward. Sometimes, it can seem like there is no right answer. But stay active, eat well, quit smoking–all the little steps, actions, and choices we make each day to stay healthy count, even when you do not feel like they do! But the little actions add up, and it buys us researchers enough time to tackle some of the more complex paradoxes of human health.

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