Splenda, the popular artificial sweetner, may be doing more than making food taste good, a new study finds.

Researchers say the sweetener sucralose is capable of changing how the body metabolizes sugar by elevating insulin levels, which in some cases could lead to type 2 diabetes.

"Our results indicate that this artificial sweetener is not inert -- it does have an effect," said M. Yanina Pepino, lead author and research assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. "And we need to do more studies to determine whether this observation means long-term use could be harmful."

The study, which appears online in the journal Diabetes Care, assessed Splenda's effect in 17 severely obese individuals who don't have diabetes and normally don't use artificial sweeteners. These individuals are more likely recommended to take sweeteners to reduce their caloric intake and start eating healthier.

Past studies have used artificial sweeteners in healthier participants.

"In many of these studies, the artificial sweetener is given by itself," Pepino said. "But in real life, people rarely consume a sweetener by itself. They use it in their coffee or on breakfast cereal or when they want to sweeten some other food they are eating or drinking."

Pepino and her team found that blood sugar peaked when the participants drank sucralose, compared to regular water before consuming glucose. In addition, their insulin levels were 20 percent greater, meaning Splenda was associated with boosting blood insulin and glucose response. While elevated insulin is a good sign to show how the body handles glucose, it may be a bad sign when insulin is secreted regularly because people could become insulin resistant--a pattern that could eventually lead to type II diabetes.

"Although we found that sucralose affects the glucose and insulin response to glucose ingestion, we don't know the mechanism responsible," Pepino added. "We have shown that sucralose is having an effect. In obese people without diabetes, we have shown sucralose is more than just something sweet that you put into your mouth with no other consequences."

Recent animal studies have also found that artificial sweeteners release more hormones, like insulin, and enhances glucose absorption. It concerns researchers because these taste-good additives could affect metabolism. However, they're unsure how sucralose exactly adjusts levels of glucose and insulin in humans.

"What these all mean for daily life scenarios is still unknown, but our findings are stressing the need for more studies," she said. "Whether these acute effects of sucralose will influence how our bodies handle sugar in the long term is something we need to know."

More than 25 million children and adults in the country have diabetes. According to the Mayo Clinic, being overweight, less active, genetics, among other factors, contribute to increased risk of type II diabetes. Artificial sweeteners are used to keep weight under control because they contain almost no calories.

Source: Pepino MY, Tiemann CD, Patterson BW, et al. Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load. Diabetes Care. 2013.