By Sabra Leomo, RD

Sugar, the ingredient that is on everyone’s mind. In the United States more than one-third of adults are obese and dietary guidelines are cracking down on added sugar. Sugar substitutes have become an increasingly popular option for people who want sweets without the additional calories.  In 2015 the sugar substitute business was valued at over 13 billion dollars and continues to grow.1  Sucralose is a widely used sugar substitute that is considered safe by the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) but recent research is challenging the safety of sucralose.

Like many artificial sweeteners sucralose was discovered by accident in a laboratory. In 1976 Tate & Lyle and the Queen Elizabeth College in London were conducting a joint research project that involved chemically modifying sugar. One of the researchers misunderstood “test” for “taste” and by accident sucralose was discovered.1

Sucralose is marketed under the brand name “Splenda” and is commonly seen on tables in little yellow packets. Beyond those packets sucralose is used in thousands of food and beverage products, from baked goods to beverages, and the number of products is steadily climbing. If you were to check your pantry or refrigerator it wouldn’t be surprising to find “sucralose” or “Splenda” in the ingredient list of food and beverage items.

Although sucralose is made from sugar it is not a natural product. Sucralose is produced by a multi-step patented chemical process that replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three chlorine atoms. The replacement with chlorine atoms intensifies the sweetness to 600 times more than table sugar and contain zero calories.3 

In 1999 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved sucralose as safe for human consumption as a general sweetener.4  However, there is conflicting research on the safety of sucralose. Some of the potential negative effects of sucralose include:  

Sucralose may increase blood glucose and insulin levels: Sucralose may negatively affect the very people who are using it to decrease sugar consumption and stabilize blood glucose levels. A study found that sucralose increased blood glucose levels and insulin levels while decreasing insulin sensitivity.5  This could negatively affect people, especially those with diabetes, who consume sucralose to try to manage their blood glucose levels.  

Sucralose and gut health: Gastrointestinal health, gut health, has become a topic of great interest. It’s no surprise that our bodies and gastrointestinal (GI) tract are home to more bacteria than we have cells in our body. We tend to think of bacteria as something to avoid but bacteria also play a beneficial role in our health. A large portion of our immune system is located in the GI tract and beneficial bacteria play a major role in a healthy immune system. A study on sucralose and the GI microbiome found that sucralose altered the gut microbiome by decreasing beneficial bacteria by up to 50%. Additionally, they found that 12 weeks after the study the beneficial bacteria in the GI tract had not recovered. Which means that even after sucralose was no longer being consumed the GI tract was still negatively affected.  The study also found that sucralose may limit the bioavailability of certain orally administered medications which may make medications less effective.6

Cooking and chloropropanols: One of the proposed uses of Splenda is to reduce calories when cooking and baking. Splenda was considered to be heat resistant but research is finding otherwise. When heated, Splenda was found to degrade and release harmful chloropropanols at high temperatures.7/8  Chloropropanols are toxic and may lead to cancer and infertility in men.

Benjamin Franklin once said “when in doubt, don’t”. If you are uncertain about the health effects of sucralose it is best just to avoid this product. As an alternative to consuming sucralose limit the amount of added sugar in your diet to less than 100 calories or 25 grams for most women and 150 calories or 36 grams for most men.9

Footnotes: 

1 “Sugar Substitutes Market Analysis By Product (High Intensity Sweeteners, Low Intensity Sweeteners, High Fructose Syrup), By Application (Bakery & Confectionery, Dairy, Beverages) And Segment Forecasts To 2024”.  Grand View Research. http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/sugar-substitutes-market. Accessed 25 July 2017.
2 “Our Story”. Splenda Sweeteners. https://www.splenda.com/story.  Accessed 25 July 2017
3 “Sucralose”. The Calorie Control Counsil. http://caloriecontrol.org/sucralose/. Accessed 25 July 2017.
4 “Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for use in Food in the United States”.  The U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm397725.htm. Accessed 25 July 2017.
5 “Sucralose affects glycemic and hormonal responses to an oral glucose load” PubMed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23633524. Accessed 28 July 2017.
6 “Splenda Alters Gut Microflora and Increases Intestinal P-Glycoprotein and Cytochrome P-450 in Male Rats”.  Taylor & Francis Online. Accessed 25 July 2017.
7 “Sucralose, A Synthetic Organochlorine Sweetener: Overview Of Biological Issues”. Taylor & Francis Online. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10937404.2013.842523. Accessed 25 July 2017.
8 “Thermal stability and thermal decomposition of sucralose”. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262555343_Thermal_stability_and_thermal_decomposition_of_sucralose. Accessed 25 July 2017.
9 “Added Sugars”. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Added-Sugars_UCM_305858_Article.jsp#.WYzS5VGGPIW. Accessed 25 July 2017.