About thirty years ago, I developed gut problems. I mean real blaster ones, it was like a damn fire hose at times. You could get a Covid anal swab by taping it to a broom and holding it ten metres behind me. I could have developed a career as a one man slurry spreader. So, being a microbiologist dealing mainly with gut issues I set about trying to work out what caused it. No, it did not occur to me to ask a medic. That rarely occurs to me. The rare interactions I’ve had with them suggest they aren’t really taught much any more.
I cut out lactose. Lactose intolerance seems common. You’d be surprised how hard it is to avoid that. You know those ready-roasted and lovely browned chicken pieces and ready roasted chickens? They are coated in lactose. Caramelised lactose gives them the brown colour without the sweetness you’d get from sucrose or glucose. Anyway, I managed to cut out lactose. It made no difference at all, so I don’t have lactose intolerance.
I’ve tried cutting out wheat many times. Again,it didn’t help much, but it did help a bit. I have concluded that I do not have wheat allergy but might not do well with wheat overload. Pizza with garlic bread is just too much wheat. It won’t kill me but it’s pretty uncomfortable. But that still wasn’t it. Incidentally, you can now get gluten free garlic bread that’s really good. Ordinary gluten free bread was awful, it fell to bits when you tried to butter it but the garlic bread version is good.
I went entirely caffeine-free for a few years. Made no difference, but when I went back to caffeine it hit like cocaine! I’m now fully caffeinated again. There were other experiments but none of them made a difference.
The big clue came when I tried cutting out sugar. That made it a hell of a lot worse. I could see nothing protective in sugar so what was it? Lack of sugar? Some kind of bizarre anti-diabetes? Ah, of course. What was I replacing sugar with? Artificial sweeteners, at that time it was mostly aspartame.
So I went back to real sugar and avoided all artificial sweteners. That helped a lot. This led me to the idea that the artificial sweeteners were not the benign replacements we were told. Subsequent experiments (on me, of course) showed that aspartame, particularly, caused the high pressure blowouts. I have avoided all artificial sweeteners but especially aspartame since then.
Now, we are talking about the 1990s. You could not convince anyone that artificial sweeteners were anything but a Good Thing. They had been safety tested, right? Gut bacteria ignored them, right? They provided sweetness without calories and did nothing else at all. I could not convince anyone that I had vastly improved my dodgy guts by simply avoiding artificial sweeteners.
So, against that background, I could not interest any funding body in paying me to research this. There seemed no problem to research. One man’s experience is not going to cut it as a fund-worthy hypothesis and yeah, that’s true. I was, after all, asking for a lot of money to research something that as far as I could prove, only applied to me.
I was also working with pigs at the time. A very expensive animal for food research but one which has an omnivore diet and a gut very close to humans. We actually produced research that proved that frozen chips are a better dietary option than fresh ones. Yes, we proved that chips are good for you!
So it would have been a good case. Is it ethical to feed artificial sweeteners to animals? Well they are approved to be fed to humans so there’s no ethical case to answer there. The experiment would have been massively expensive though. I could have done the gut microbiology but I’d have needed a lot of veterinary time for blood sample taking and also had to pay blood testing labs. Perhaps if I had thought of doing it in mice I might have had more luck. But then I have never worked with mice other than poisoning the little hairy bastards when they get into the house every winter.
The experiment never happened. I consoled myself with the knowledge that my gut issues were mainly down to aspartame, possibly to a lesser extent other artificial sweeteners, and maybe an overload of wheat gluten intake. I can control those things so I am able to fix myself. Which, if I am honest, was my original motivation.
Now it seems the issue is finally being taken seriously. A study has demonstrated a very significant effect on gut bacteria caused by artificial sweeteners. I don’t know if I would call the changes dangerous, but they are certainly unpleasant. They don’t seem likely to kill you but you’d really rather not have them.
You are far better off limiting your sugar intake than replacing it with synthetics. Too much sugar is bad for you, that’s true. Replacing it with synthetics is likely to be worse.
It’s nice to see, after all this time, I was right. Even if I never did get to do the research myself.