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Could artificial sweetener use during pregnancy cause obesity in children?

Researchers studied the use of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and stevia during pregnancy.

Obesity is a disease that has reached epidemic levels across the United States and the world. Unfortunately, having obesity increases the risk of developing other illnesses, and is linked to impaired immune function (1).

The number of obese children aged 2-19 years in 2018 was 19.3% or about 14.4 million children (2). While obesity in children is influenced by behaviors such as a high-calorie diet, not enough physical activity, and too much time spent in sedentary activities, obesity is more complex than just diet and activity (3).

Often, to reduce calories, people with obesity will consume food and drink containing artificial sweeteners. Popular artificial sweeteners include aspartame and stevia. These sweeteners are known as non-nutritive sweeteners because they do not provide any nutritional value but have a sweet taste (4). 

However, doctors are concerned about the possible long-term side effects from using artificial sweeteners (4). Some studies in rats have shown that long-term use of artificial sweeteners causes problems with metabolism and changes in the gut microbiome (5). Some studies even suggest that use of artificial sweeteners might increase the risk of developing obesity (6), while some research hints that consumption of these products while pregnant can lead to a higher risk of obesity for children (4).

Researchers from the University of Calgary recently completed a study of the use of the artificial sweeteners aspartame and stevia during pregnancy. Their results were published in the journal, Frontiers in Nutrition.

The study was performed on pregnant rats and their offspring. First, the rats were fed a high fat/ high sugar diet for 8 weeks to cause obesity (4). Forty-five obese rats were impregnated. The rats were divided into three groups: the HFS group, which were fed water and normal diet; the aspartame group, which were fed water and aspartame; and the stevia group, which were fed water and stevia (4). After the pups were born, they were weaned at 3 weeks old and fed a normal diet (4).

Each week the pups were weighed until they were 18 weeks old. The body composition of the maternal rats was measured when the pups were 3 weaned (4). Researchers also measured the body composition of the pups at 3 and 18 weeks old (4).

The research team sampled the intestinal tissue of the mothers and pups. Samples of digested material from the participants were collected and tested for bacterial DNA. This gave the researchers into the gut microbiota of the mothers and pups.

After statistical analysis, the researchers discovered that while the artificial sweeteners did not cause the mothers to become more obese, their pups were more likely to be obese (4). Even though the pups did not eat any of the artificial sweeteners, they gained more weight and had higher body fat. These pups also had similar gut microbiota to their mothers (4).

In a press release senior study author Raylene Reimer recommended, “Following dietary guidelines and staying within the recommended weight gain guidelines for pregnancy are key steps to take.”

References:

  1. CDC. Obesity, Race/Ethnicity, and COVID-19 | Overweight & Obesity | CDC. www.cdc.gov. Published September 17, 2020. Accessed January 18, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/obesity-and-covid-19.html
  2. CDC. Childhood Obesity Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 5, 2021. Accessed January 18, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity causes & consequences. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published March 19, 2021. Accessed January 18, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/causes.html
  4. Wang W, Nettleton JE, Gänzle MG, Reimer RA. A Metagenomics Investigation of Intergenerational Effects of Non-nutritive Sweeteners on Gut Microbiome. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2022;8. doi:10.3389/fnut.2021.795848
  5. Olivier-Van Stichelen S, Rother KI, Hanover JA. Maternal Exposure to Non-nutritive Sweeteners Impacts Progeny’s Metabolism and Microbiome. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2022;10. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2019.01360
  6. Palmnäs MSA, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, et al. Low-Dose Aspartame Consumption Differentially Affects Gut Microbiota-Host Metabolic Interactions in the Diet-Induced Obese Rat. Müller M, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(10):e109841. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109841

Image by fezailc from Pixabay 

Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship BSc
Rebecca Blankenship is a freelance technical writer. She reviews, edits, and authors internal quality documentation required for regulatory compliance. She has twenty years experience in industrial pharma/medical device quality management systems and an honors BSc in chemistry. She is a natural born rule follower and enjoys applying this strength to help others be audit ready to meet regulatory requirements. She also loves learning about the latest scientific discoveries while writing for Medical News Bulletin. Her free time is spent as a full-time mom, encouraging can-do attitudes and cooperation in her three children.
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