A popular zero-calorie sweetener is linked to an increased risk of heart attack and Strokefinds a new study.
Known as erythritol, the sugar substitute occurs naturally at low levels in some plants, such as grapes and mushrooms, but is also produced industrially and added to foods in higher concentrations. In particular, it is often used to sweeten lowcalorielow-carb and “keto” products, which are usually high in fat and low in carbs.
For the study, which was published Feb. 27 in Nature Medicine (opens in new tab)Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio evaluated more than 4,000 Americans and Europeans undergoing cardiac evaluation and found that those with the highest concentration of artificial sweetener were at increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next three years, according to The New York Times (opens in new tab). Specifically, the majority of participants already had some form of cardiovascular disease or had risk factors for developing heart problems in the future, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
“People are trying to do something healthy for themselves, but they may inadvertently be doing harm,” study author Dr. Stanley Hazen (opens in new tab)a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told the New York Times.
Related: 9 risk factors for heart disease, according to experts
In laboratory experiments, erythritol increased the activity of platelets, a type of blood cells that stick together to form clots, causing clots to form at a faster rate. Similarly, mice injected with erythritol clots formed more quickly after injury than mice injected with saline, the team reported. They also took blood samples from people who had drunk an erythritol-sweetened drink and found that their blood levels of the sweetener peaked within hours and remained high for two days—high enough that it could potentially affect their blood clotting. the authors wrote.
Increased coagulation has the potential to cause a heart attack or stroke because blood flow is constricted as clots form, according to the study.
“The way we looked at it, it showed the same signal,” Hazen told The New York Times.
However, it’s worth noting that there were some limitations to the study, particularly that many participants were over 60 and already had heart disease, meaning they were already at some risk of heart attack and stroke. While the study showed some link between clot formation and erythritol, it did not show that the compound actually caused strokes and heart attacks in humans.
“(This study is) extremely important and will likely cause immediate changes in what we consume.” Greg Neely (opens in new tab)said a professor of functional genomics at the University of Sydney who was not involved in the study The Washington Post (opens in new tab). “We don’t fully understand the health implications of processed foods, and just because something is sold as ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s safe or good for us to consume on an industrial scale.”
The study authors concluded that “studies evaluating the long-term safety of erythritol are warranted.”