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Research shows that stevia is the most brain-compatible sugar substitute




Research shows that stevia is the most brain-compatible sugar substitute

Credit: Jiang et al.

Given the known risks of consuming large amounts of sugar, many people today are looking for alternative sweeteners that produce a similar taste without leading to significant weight gain and causing other health problems. Although research suggests that the brain can tell the difference between different sweet substances, the neural processes underlying this ability to distinguish between sweeteners remain poorly understood.

Researchers from Shanghai University of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and other institutions in China recently conducted a study to better understand what happens in the brains of mice when they are given different types of sweeteners. Their findings, published in Neuroscientific researchsuggest that the response of neurons to sucrose and stevia is similar, suggesting that stevia could be an equally pleasant but healthier sugar substitute.

“Obesity is a major problem worldwide and the use of sweeteners as a substitute for sucrose is a current trend in the food industry,” Yingjie Zhu, co-author of the paper, told Medical Xpress. “Although they all possess sweetness, many sugar substitutes show noticeable differences compared to sucrose when consumed. Therefore, our original idea was to investigate whether there might be a specific brain region in the central nervous system that could reflect the differences between these sugar substitutes and sugar substitutes. .” sucrose in real time.”

Stevia is a commonly used sweetener that is extracted from the leaves of a plant native to South America. Many dietitians recommend stevia as a sugar substitute because it is very sweet, but contains fewer calories and has minimal effects on blood sugar levels. The main goal of Zhu and his colleagues’ recent work was to investigate how the brains of mice responded after they consumed stevia, sugar, or one of three other sweeteners (xylitol, glycyrrhizin, and mogroside).

The team hoped to reveal how neurons in the brains of mice responded to the consistent consumption of these different sweeteners over a six-week period. Additionally, they were interested in determining whether any of the low-calorie sweeteners they examined elicited similar brain responses to sugar.

“Our previous research has shown that the activity of neurons in the paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus (PVT) can track the salience of the stimulus,” explains Zhu. “Therefore, as part of our new study, we recorded activity intensity in the PVT of mice while they consumed various sweeteners and sucrose.”

The researchers gave mice six different diets for six weeks. One group of mice was given a so-called control diet (with a mixture of sweeteners), while the other groups were given a diet with large amounts of sugar, stevia, xylitol, glycyrrhizin or mogroside respectively.

Zhu and his colleagues recorded the activity of neurons in the mice’s brains in real time, using in vivo fluorescent calcium imaging. This is an experimental technique that allows scientists to monitor changes in calcium levels in cells, which in turn reveals the activity patterns of these cells.

Interestingly, the team’s recordings showed that, compared to other sugar substitutes considered as part of this study, stevia induced activity in the PVT that was more similar to that induced by sugar ingestion. This suggests that stevia is the most ‘brain compatible’ among the most commonly used sugar alternatives, and most closely reflects the perceived taste of sugar.

“We found that, given an abundant food supply, compared with other sugar substitutes, the activity in the PVT brain region induced by stevia was most similar to that induced by sucrose,” Zhu said. “This suggests that stevia could potentially be the most brain-compatible sugar substitute. Therefore, stevia should receive more attention in the relevant food and beverage industry.”

In the future, this recent research could encourage more food and beverage manufacturers to include stevia in their products to reduce their calorie count. Furthermore, it could inspire other neuroscientists to further investigate the neural underpinnings of stevia consumption.

“We were pleased to observe a close similarity in brain activity in mice when consuming stevia and sucrose,” Zhu added. “Therefore, in future studies we hope to investigate whether a similar phenomenon exists in the human brain using fMRI.”

More information:
Shaolei Jiang et al., Neuronal activity in the anterior paraventricular nucleus of the thalamus positively correlates with sweetener consumption in mice, Neuroscientific research (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.neures.2024.02.002

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