Artificial sweeteners are normally used by diabetics and others trying to lower their sugar intake. However, new research suggests the popular sweetener sucralose modifies how the human body handles sugar in ways that may prove to be harmful and increase risk for type 2 diabetes.

Conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, this study tracked the effects of sucralose on 17 severely obese people without diabetes and found that sucralose can influence how the body reacts to glucose.

In other words, sucralose is not inert - and more studies need to be done to determine whether its long-term use could be harmful.

The Washington University research team followed people with an average body mass index (BMI) of just over 42, which is well above the level considered obese. These subjects were given either water or sucralose to drink before they were subjected to a glucose challenge test, which measured their bodies’ ability to handle sugar.

Disturbingly, individuals experience marked differences in blood sugar changes after consuming sucralose. Their blood sugar peaked at a higher level than when they drank only water before consuming glucose.

Not only that, their insulin levels also rose about 20% higher. In other words, sucralose consumption was related to enhanced blood insulin and glucose responses in the study subjects.

This elevated insulin response is disturbing because when people secrete more insulin, it can lead to insulin resistance along with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

These findings challenge long-held beliefs that artificial sweeteners don't have an effect on metabolism but merely react to taste buds without carrying the calories associated with natural sweeteners.

Most previous studies have been conducted in healthy, lean individuals where the artificial sweetener is given by itself. But in real life, people rarely consume a sweetener alone. They use it in their coffee, on their breakfast cereal or when they want to sweeten some other food they are eating or drinking.

In other words, what these findings mean for daily real-life situations is still unknown, but it’s clearly important to find out whether the acute effects of sucralose predict the long-term consequences of sucralose consumption.

Finally, it isn’t entirely clear how sucralose influences glucose and insulin levels in people who are obese and already at risk for type 2 diabetes - and this too needs to be studied further.

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