Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Might Have a New Reason to Ditch Artificial Sweeteners

A mom cradles her newborn baby.

(Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash)


Women considering pregnancy might have another reason to drop artificial sweeteners from their diet, if a new study of mice proves to apply to humans as well. It highlights "yet another potential health impact of zero-calorie sweeteners," according to lead author Stephanie Olivier-Van Stichelen.

The discovery was serendipitous, not part of the original study.

It found that commonly used artificial sweeteners consumed by female mice transfer to pups in the womb and later through milk, harming their development. The sweeteners affected the composition of bacteria in the gut of the pups, making them more vulnerable to developing diabetes, and greatly reduced the liver's capacity to neutralize toxins.

The discovery was serendipitous, not part of the original study, says John Hanover, the senior author and a cell biologist at the NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The main study looked at how a high sugar diet in the mother turns genes on and off in the developing offspring.

It compared them with mothers fed a low sugar diet, replacing sugar with a mix of sucralose and acesulfame-K (AK), two non-nutrient artificial sugars that are already used extensively in our food products and thought to be safe.

While the artificial sweeteners had little effect on the mothers, the trace amounts that were transferred through the placenta and milk had a profound effect on the pups. Hanover believes the molecules are changing gene expression during a crucial, short period of development.

"Somewhat to our surprise, we saw in the pups a really dramatic change in the microbiome" of those whose mothers were fed the artificial sweeteners, Hanover told leapsmag. "It looked like the neonates were much, much more sensitive than their mothers to the sucralose and AK." The unexpected discovery led them to publish a separate paper.

"The protective microbe Akkermansia was largely missing, and we saw a pretty dramatic shift in the ratio of two bacteria that are normally associated with metabolic disease," a precursor to diabetes, he explains. Akkermansia is a bacteria that feeds on mucus in the gut and helps remodel the tissue to an adult state over the first several months of life in a mouse. A similar process takes several years in humans, as the infant is weaned off of breast milk as the primary food source.

The good news is the body seems to remove these artificial sweeteners fairly quickly, probably within a week.

Another problem the researchers saw in the animals was "a particularly striking change in the metabolism of the detoxification systems" in the liver, says Hanover. A healthy liver is dark red, but a high dose of the artificial sweeteners turned it white, "which is a sign of massive problems."

The study was conducted in mice and Hanover cautions the findings may not apply to humans. "But in general, the microbiome changes that one sees in the rodent model mimics what we see in humans...[and] the genes that are turned on in the mouse and the human are very similar."

Hanover acknowledges the quantity of artificial sweeteners used in the study is on the high end of human consumption, roughly the equivalent of 20 cans of diet soda a day. But the sweeteners are so ubiquitous in consumer products, from foods to lipstick, and often not even mentioned on the label, that it is difficult to measure just how much a person consumes every day.

The good news is the body seems to remove these artificial sweeteners fairly quickly, probably within a week. Until further studies provide a clearer picture, women who want to err on the side of caution can choose to reduce if not eliminate their exposure to artificial sweeteners during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.
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Photo of sticker by Marisol Benitez on Unsplash; Jha photo by Brown University.
Making Sense of Science features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This monthly podcast is hosted by journalist Kira Peikoff, founding editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.


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Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 tragically claimed 490 lives, but was the catalyst for several important medical advances.

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On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.

"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."

Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.

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Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.