Splenda's not so splendid

By Cynthia Lair

This article was originally published in February 2014

That caddie of pastel-colored sweetener packets is a mainstay in cafes, restaurants and grocery stores, offering a selection of sweeteners for your morning cup of joe. Surely you have noticed PCC doesn’t carry these little pink, blue or yellow packets. There are reasons.

For decades, deciphering the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners has followed a familiar pattern. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration quickly gives the thumbs up and vigorous marketing of the new product ensues, until research showing ill health effects from consumption surfaces years later.

Remember saccharin? Everyone wants something sweet for nothing (no calories, no side effects). In the case of most artificial sweeteners, this is pretty much a fantasy. The research against ingesting Splenda® — and artificial sweeteners in general — is mounting faster than caffeine enters the bloodstream.

Troubling health research

The use of sucralose, marketed as Splenda, was approved for use in 1998. Scientists in Britain seeking a pesticide formulation accidentally discovered this synthetic compound. Splenda is made by replacing hydroxyl groups in the sugar molecule with chlorine. There were no long-term studies before this sweetener entered the market.

A short-term study (by product manufacturers) found shrunken thymus, which is part of the immune system, and enlarged kidneys and livers in rodents. A subsequent study, however, did not find any problem and the little yellow packets became the new choice in the caddies.

Ten years later, a study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found rats fed Splenda had less beneficial intestinal bacteria. Disruption in the number and balance of intestinal microflora may interfere with many essential gut functions, including nutrient metabolism, normal immune system functioning, gastrointestinal mobility and inhibition of pathogens.

With all the recent research proving the importance of good bacteria in our gut, we don’t want to cancel out the benefits of our morning yogurt with an afternoon diet soda, right? Unfortunately, the study was small, had other shortcomings, and didn’t affect sales, which reached $212 million in 2006.

In 2012 an independent laboratory revealed a study finding that sucralose caused leukemia in mice that were exposed before birth. This study was from the same lab that several years earlier had published studies indicating aspartame caused cancers in rats and mice. This new research caused the Center for Science in the Public Interest to move sucralose from the “safe” list to the “caution” list.

Splenda, diabetes and weight

Artificial sweeteners frequently are recommended as a way to limit calorie intake to reduce excess weight. Some long-term studies show that regular consumption of artificially sweetened beverages reduces the intake of calories and may promote weight loss or maintenance. Other studies show no effect. Just to keep us guessing, some studies show weight gain from consuming artificial sweeteners.

Experts in the weight gain camp cite experiments on laboratory rats showing those eating food with artificial sweeteners ate more calories than rats eating food sweetened with sugar.

Sucralose once was thought to be a sweet solution for overweight diabetics, but it may be part of the problem. A 2013 study reported in the journal Diabetes Care finds Splenda modifies the way the body handles sugar, increasing insulin production by 20 percent.

“Our results indicate that this artificial sweetener is not inert — it does have an effect,” said Yanina Pepino, research assistant professor of medicine at the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, who led the study.

In her recent opinion piece published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, Professor Susan Swithers of Purdue University states, “Frequent consumers of these sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

The takeaway

So, which pastel packet should we choose? Common sense leads us to consider quantity and quality. Whether selecting honey, sugar or Sweet’N Low, it’s best to keep the amount of food with a sweet taste minimal.

As for quality, ask yourself if the granules in the packet are something you could duplicate in your kitchen. If you had a maple tree or a bee hive in your yard it’s likely you could come up with a jar of something sweet to make a cake. But it would be quite a feat to replace three select hydrogen-oxygen groups on sucrose (table sugar) molecules with three chlorine atoms. You’d need more than goggles and beakers.

Also in this issue

Salt: How much is too much?

Americans eat nearly twice the recommended amount of salt but several reports over the past few years have demonstrated the lack of solid science supporting low-sodium diets.

Letters to the editor, February 2014

Synthetic biology, Sustainable sardines?, Eating invasive species?, and more

Companies drop "natural" label

A growing number of food companies are removing the "natural" claim from packages. The reason? Mounting lawsuits for false advertising. Read more in the cover article of the Sound Consumer next month.