Healthy Living

A Matter of Taste – Our Bodies' Perception of Artificial Sweeteners

A Matter of Taste - Our Bodies' Perception of Artificial Sweeteners
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By: Lynn Stratton

In my previous article, I looked at the proliferation of lower-sugar and sugar-free products in our food supply. Here, I’d like to look at a different angle: whether those products are really any different from the sugary ones in the way our bodies respond to them.

After all, given all the advice from experts in nutrition, and particularly in diabetes care, it would seem to be obvious that sugar (in all its forms) is the culprit in our obesity and diabetes crises. But is it the sugar itself that is the problem? After all, for years we’ve been told that when sugar enters the bloodstream it triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas.

Research over the past two decades, however, has raised questions about whether the trigger is the substance, sugar, or the perception of a sweet taste. The abstract of a study published in the journal Appetite in November, 2008 examines one type of insulin release, CPIR, or cephalic phase insulin release. It says this: “In humans little is known as to whether taste solutions applied to the tongue elicit cephalic phase insulin release (CPIR).” The researchers used eight taste solutions (sucrose, saccharin, acetic acid, sodium chloride, quinine hydrochloride, distilled water, starch, and sodium glutamate); the study notes that the solutions were not swallowed, merely applied to each subject’s tongue. The results? “A significant increase of plasma insulin concentration was apparent after stimulation with sucrose and saccharin. In conclusion, the current data suggest that the sweeteners sucrose and saccharin activate a CPIR even when applied to the oral cavity only.” The research was carried out by the University of Rostock, in Germany.

Another study, published in the April 2007 edition of the journal Biomedical Research, showed that “Tasting sweet food elicits insulin release prior to increasing plasma glucose levels, known as cephalic phase insulin release (CPIR).” The researchers “examined whether taste stimuli placed on the tongue could induce CPIR” and concluded that the tastes of sucrose and saccharine both did. The journal is published in India.

Closer to home, researchers have recently identified taste receptors in human intestines and say they are critical to sweet taste in the tongue. The lead author of this study, Robert F. Margolskee, MD, PhD Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says “We now know that the receptors that sense sugar and artificial sweeteners are not limited to the tongue.” And he notes, “Cells of the gut taste glucose through the same mechanisms used by taste cells of the tongue. The gut taste cells regulate secretion of insulin and hormones that regulate appetite.

Most importantly, at least for this discussion, is this telling comment: “This work may explain why current artificial sweeteners may not help with weight loss . . .” If you’re curious, the research was funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, which includes smell and taste, and the National Institutes of Health. And that should tell you a lot, as does the fact that the two previous studies I mentioned were done overseas.

Why? Because, at least in this country, diabetes is big business. Two groups oversee all things diabetes in this country. The first is the American Diabetic Association, whose website ( lists one David M. Kendall M.D. as Chief Scientific and Medical Officer for the organization. The website says this: “Kendall joined the Association in September 2009 and provides leadership and oversight of scientific and medical activities including research, clinical affairs, program recognition and certification, medical information and professional education. In this capacity, he oversees the Association’s support of a broad range of professional education activities and the development of the Association’s clinical practice guidelines, clinical consensus reports and expert opinions.”

A high-powered expert, indeed. Unfortunately, the same site notes that he also served as Executive Director of Medical Affairs at Amylin Pharmaceuticals from 2005-2008, which would be, hey, right before he joined the ADA! And what does Amylin Pharma sell? Diabetes drugs, including Byetta.

Let’s move on to the second powerhouse in the diabetes game, the other ADA, the American Dietetic Association, at (!) The site encourages professionals to join by saying “Enrich your career; join ADA!” For those wanting accurate, science-based information on diabetes, they offer their own stable of spokespersons, including Marisa Moore, who “previously worked as a nutrition consultant for The Coca-Cola Company.”

Another spokesperson is Jessie Pavlinac, 2009-10 president of the ADA. In a recent article, the Kansas City Star lays out the relationships between some food companies and medical groups, with this interesting tidbit: “PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay unit operates a ‘License to Snack’ Web site developed with the American Dietetic Association. On the site, the ADA’s logo appears next to Frito-Lay’s. A cartoon car zips around the screen. A balloon quote pops from a girl in the back seat: ‘Snacking is an important part of a healthier diet, but oftentimes it is difficult to decide what to choose.’ Click around and you’ll find tips such as ‘Fill nutrition gaps when possible.’ ADA President Jessie Pavlinac, a registered dietitian at Oregon Health & Science University, declined to reveal how much Frito-Lay paid her organization to help with the Web project, citing proprietary “ADA partner agreements.”

And this: “Although corporate sponsorship ‘doesn’t change the science,’ Pavlinac acknowledged that society views such things skeptically, as do member dietitians.” Really? Can’t imagine why.

Now, the ADA has something called the Evidence Analysis Library, which purports to provide, you know, evidence of its findings. One other thing it provides is disclosure on financial ties and funding. In a recent posting on its Evidence Analysis Team for Oncology and Nutrition, Jessie Pavlinac is listed as a reviewer. Right underneath is the list of financial contributors for the team; there are two names, and one is Novartis, maker of the diabetes drug Starlix.

And more on the ADA: they’re big enough, and powerful enough, to have their own political action committee, the ADAPAC. Their website says, “Our goal is to support pro-nutrition candidates for federal office. offers ADA members the opportunity to explore many of the issues and activities involving political action and dietetics, as well as a directory of relevant links.”

Definitely, let’s not let those awful anti-nutrition candidates get elected. The group adds this: “If dietetics is your profession, politics is your business!”

Um, sure. Meanwhile, at Purdue University’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center, scientists report that, compared with rats that ate yogurt sweetened with glucose, rats given yogurt sweetened with saccharin consumed more calories, gained more weight, and put on more body fat. The authors of the published study note that “The data clearly indicate that consuming a food sweetened with no-calorie saccharin can lead to greater body-weight gain and adiposity than would consuming the same food sweetened with a higher-calorie sugar.”

So, to recap, the country is in a get-out-the-sugar frenzy at all levels of government, yet research has shown that artificial sweeteners may be just as much a factor in not only weight gain but diabetes as plain old sugar. Of course, skeptic that I am, I wanted to know why, and the answer, as it always does, boils down to one word: money. As I noted in my previous article, sugar costs more than artificial sweeteners; use the chemicals, and the industry makes more money. It’s that simple.

And the food industry, under the guise of caring about our health, has jumped on the lower-sugar bandwagon, introducing any number of products that have simply replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners. In fact, one breakfast cereal manufacturer in particular seems especially enthusiastic about the prospect. From a news release titled “Ajinomoto and Kellogg’s team up on healthier cereals project,” we can read the following: “New product development and reformulation of Kellogg’s existing offering will be the focus of new R&D collaborative project between Ajinomoto and Kellogg’s. The two companies are aiming to jointly develop products that deliver benefits in the areas of weight management, sugar and salt reduction, said the Tokyo based Ajinomoto.”

The ADA very helpfully lists their corporate sponsors right on their website, and they include CocaCola, Pepsi, General Mills, Mars, and, oh, look: it’s Kellogg’s! Let’s see, the ADA tells people what to eat to stay healthy, and they even have their own political action committee. And the ADA gets money from the food and pharmaceutical industry, and from a breakfast cereal company (among many, many other products) that just happens to have recently entered into a relationship with the global (and I do mean global) giant responsible for manufacturing artificial sweeteners, which are now, you can bet, going to be appearing in even greater amounts in what you eat every day. Not to mention what your children eat.

Does that mean the ADA and Ajinomoto are cozy? That the entire diabetes industry really doesn’t have your best interests at heart because it’s all about the money? At this point, I’ll add one final point: the pharmaceutical arm of Ajinomoto, Daiichi Sankyo, produces diabetes drugs.

You do the math. Just keep in mind, it’s worth billions.

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