Diabetics know they have to be careful around sugar. Now a study has found that a popular artificial sweetener may be just as bad, if not worse. Although the researchers did not determine that sucralose—sold as Splenda and several other names, typically in yellow packages—had exactly the same effect on the body as sugar, they did find that it fools not only the tongue, but other organs as well. Sucralose produced a heightened response as compared to water, in the same way sugar does, and which is what people with type 2 diabetes need to be on the alert for. The sugar substitute was also found to increase the tendency to insulin resistance, another precursor to type 2 diabetes.
The study subjects, who said they did not normally use artificial sweeteners, were asked to consume sucralose and then undergo a diagnostic test typically used for diabetes. The sucralose caused a 20 percent increase in insulin levels over ordinary water. The clinical significance of this isn’t entirely clear, though excess insulin production is a feature of diabetes. The mechanism by which sucralose produces this reaction is also unclear, but scientists have a hunch.
Sucralose was discovered in 1976, but wasn’t available in the United States until more than 20 years later. It is made by altering sugar molecules slightly, meaning that it tastes like sugar not only as a sweetener in things like coffee, but also in recipes, unlike most artificial sweeteners. Although it is sufficiently different from sugar that it often behaves differently chemically, the ease of substituting sucralose for sugar has led to it being frequently used in diabetes-friendly recipes; this new research suggests that it may not actually be well-suited for that.
The reason is that sucralose doesn’t merely simulate sugar, it imitates it. That means it tastes like sugar, but it also means it activates most of the same receptors and responses within the body as sugar. Though sucralose has no calorie content, it is otherwise metabolized in much the same way sugar is. That’s not a big problem for most people—at least, no more so than for actual sugar—but for people who already have lifestyle risk factors for type 2 diabetes, such as obesity, it can enhance that risk. The recent study was among the few conducted in obese, rather than fit, people, who often already have a dysfunctional insulin response.