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Artificial Sweeteners and Obesity Drugs : A potential fix?

It was a mixed week for obesity observers with scientists in Israel giving thumbs down to the low calorie food and soda industry and US regulators giving thumbs up for the approval of weight-loss medicine. A cynic might appreciate the irony of the timing of the two reports.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise to me when I read a report in the scientific journal Nature that researchers believe that non calorific sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame commonly used in low calorie snacks and drinks promote obesity rather than prevent it.

I’ve always had my reservations about foods that were supposed to be better for you ever since I tasted “margarine for men” also known as Flora. It was dreadful. It was so bad that later in life I became, in my wife’s words, “a butter snob” refusing to eat anything but the best Danish butter on my toast in the morning. I know there is less trans-fat in margarine today but there’s other stuff in there as well that I just don’t trust.

And so it would seem with artificially sweetened food and drink. It’s now argued that artificial sweeteners induce metabolic changes such as glucose intolerance that are associated with diabetes and obesity. The sweeteners attack some of the vulnerable “microbiota” in the vast ecosystem in our gut. The trillions of beneficial bugs that reside in our stomach and intestines have a huge unseen and largely unfelt influence on our lives and we need to keep them happy. Evidently they don’t like Pepsi Max.

The evidence is compounded by the fact that the increase in non- caloric artificial sweetener consumption coincides with the dramatic increase in the obesity and diabetes epidemic. It’s not that a regular Coke is better than a diet Coke, but that they are both potentially as bad as each other. People switched to diet soda thinking that they were safe and started to drink more of it, just as they did with artificially sweetened low calorie food.

It’s still early days in the research timeframe that these studies have, but for me the writing is on the wall for the manufacturers of these sweeteners who are still trying to recover from (as yet) unsubstantiated claims that their products are linked to cancer. Once there’s an ounce of validity to the research and word is out, soccer Moms everywhere do the rest, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) took a similar beating a few years back. Natural sugars will prevail albeit in limited quantities.

But fear not. Novo Nordisk are helping to shift the way that regulators perceive the challenges of obesity from being a behavioral problem to one that needs to be addressed pharmacologically as well. So now that your low calorie diet has delivered one set of chemicals to your gut to mess with your microbiota you can now get some FDA approved Novo Nordisk “Liraglutide” to join the intestinal cocktail party to get them all dancing again. Half the patients injected with the drugs lost at least 5% of body weight with 20% losing 10 %.

Novo Nordisk believes that 10 % of global healthcare costs are attributed to diabetes and developing drugs to combat obesity is obviously big business for them. Hopefully they are also researching how we can keep the many different species of microbes in our stomach and intestines happy to stop us getting obese in the first place.

It’s a bit like one of those old bad form good news bad news jokes. A diabetic is in the hospital with two legs that need to be amputated. The nurse comes in and tells him that there’s good news and bad news. The guy plucks up the courage to ask for the bad news first and the nurse tells him he’s going to lose both of his legs. The guy is devastated and asks her for the good news and she tells him the guy besides him wants to buy his sneakers.

It’s a horrible joke and it was a horrible news week for cynical obesity observers. There’s more money to be made in fixing problems with new drugs than funding research to prevent obesity in the first place.