Is Your Gut Tasting Your Food?
Are your intestinal cells “tasting” the sweet meals that you eat? Researchers at the University of York in England say they are.
Some cells in your intestine resemble the taste buds on your tongue, and researchers have suggested for some time that perhaps these cells are sensing the composition of the meals that you eat. Now George L. Kellett's group at the University of York has provided evidence that these cells are, indeed, “tasting” sugars by the same means that our taste buds do.
You might think, “So what! I’m not interested in biochemistry.” And I won’t bore you with the details. If you’re interested, you can read the abstract of the research here.
But here’s the interesting part. It seems that these cells sense not only glucose, but artificial sweeteners as well. This makes a lot of sense if they use the same mechanism that the taste buds do. If it tastes sweet, the intestinal cells will react as if it’s sugar.
And here’s how this information affects us. These sweet-taste receptors apparently cause an increase in the uptake of glucose from the intestine. This means that if you ate a meal without anything sweet, you would absorb your carbohydrates from that meal a little more slowly. And slow absorption is generally a good thing in people with diabetes. (The exception is if you have gastroparesis, in which your digestion is already slowed down.)
People with type 2 can often “cover” slowly digested carbohydrates better than fast carbs. And even injected insulin can’t match the rapid peaks caused by fast carbohydrates. If you have a dessert, even an artificially sweetened one, you’ll absorb your carbs faster.
According to the researchers, acesulfame K and sucralose increase absorption the most, then saccharin. They don't mention other sweeteners.
So if we’re trying to keep our blood glucose levels down and don’t want to absorb a lot of glucose very quickly, in an ideal world we’d try to eat not only less total food, but fewer sweets, even sweets that use fake sugars. Even no sweets at all. If it tastes sweet, it probably has an effect.
However, this isn’t an ideal world. I confess that I eat a lot of homemade kefir sweetened and flavored with sugar free DaVinci syrups (made with sucralose). I figure the kefir adds calcium to my diet and face it — I enjoy the taste. It makes up to some extent for the fact that I don’t eat much fruit on my lowish-carb diet, and I’ve always really loved fruit. A little (I use about a quarter cup per serving) raspberry- or peach-flavored kefir after a meal makes the meal seem complete and contributes to my overall sense of satisfaction with my diet.
In this nonideal world, we all have to make trade-offs in our attempts to control our glucose levels. How much we are willing to give up something we love in exchange for the probability of increased health is an individual decision.
Some people, like Dr. Richard Bernstein, type 1 author of The Diabetes Solution, are very disciplined in their approach. He wants everyone with diabetes to have A1cs in the 4s. He himself hasn’t eaten any fruit in more than 30 years. He never snacks. He exercises hard every day. He maintains exquisite control. And these efforts have paid off in better health. At an age when most of his contemporaries have retired, he’s still practicing medicine, writing books, and helping other people with diabetes.
Someone else might decide they’d rather have a few treats occasionally and perhaps take the risk of getting a few complications. Because getting complications seems to depend on your genetics as well as your control of your diabetes, it’s difficult to predict in advance who will develop complications at any particular A1c level and who will not. Your risk definitely goes up with a higher A1c, but at the identical A1c, some people get complications and others don’t.
So no one says you should never take a taste of anything sweet. You need to enjoy life. This research was done in rodents. Rodent research often translates into human physiology, but sometimes it doesn’t. However, knowledge is power. The more you know about how food might affect your entire system, the better you will be able to make informed decisions.