For those who wanted to have their cake and eat it too, artificial sweeteners emerged as an answer. Over the years, the food additive became a popular choice for people who wanted to taste sweetness while needing a safety net to prevent weight gain and diabetes. But a new study suggests these sweeteners may actually have the same impact as sugar, although the two operate in different ways.

"Despite the addition of these non-caloric artificial sweeteners to our everyday diets, there has still been a drastic rise in obesity and diabetes," said lead researcher Dr. Brian Hoffmann, an assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University. "In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes, albeit through very different mechanisms from each other."

Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of much debate and contradictory research in the medical community. While some studies have identified issues with the marketed benefits, others have suggested that such findings are exaggerated or untrue. The risk of bias due to studies being funded by the industry, has also been pointed out. The new study, referred to as "the largest examination to date that tracks biochemical changes in the body," used a method called unbiased high-throughput metabolomics.

One group of mice was fed sugar (glucose or fructose) while the other was fed common zero-calorie artificial sweeteners (aspartame or acesulfame potassium). While aspartame is sold under brand names such as Equal® and NutraSweet®, acesulfame potassium is sold as Sunett® and Sweet One®. Both are among the six artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA and can typically be found in soda, ice creams, candies, chewing gum, dental hygiene products, dairy products, breakfast cereals, and other processed foods.

In less than a month, the researchers saw notable changes in the metabolism of the latter group. The sweeteners changed the way the body processed fat and received energy while acesulfame potassium appeared to accumulate in the blood, with high concentrations having a negative effect on the cells. 

The researchers stated that it is difficult to answer whether artificial sweeteners may be worse than sugar, but that moderation is the key either way. "We observed that in moderation, your body has the machinery to handle sugar; it is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down," Dr. Hoffmann said. Sweeteners, he added, simply trick the body but fail to provide the energy it requires. In the mice, they had found that the body burned away muscles in order to gain that required energy. 

The research team hopes to continue the study for a longer period and potentially examine the impact of sweeteners on human subjects as well. The research is set to be presented on April 23 at the American Physiological Society annual meeting during the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.