WASHINGTON, November 26, 2013 — Millions of people around the world use sucralose, either in the form of the popular sweetener Splenda or the thousands of products that are made with it. Because most sucralose is not metabolized by the human body and cannot be removed by wastewater treatment, it is accumulating in surface waters. While studies have generally shown sucralose is harmless to humans and aquatic life, are we asking the right questions?
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener, made by chemically altering the structure of sugar molecules through selective chlorination. Discovered in 1976 by scientists at Tate & Lyle, a British-based multinational agribusiness, sucralose was first approved in Canada in 1991 and in the U.S. in 1998.
Because the body does not metabolize 85 percent of sucralose ingested, most of it ends up in sewage treatment systems. Sucralose is resistant to water treatments for the same reason that it is not easily broken down by the body, resulting in sucralose being released into surface waters.
Today, sucralose is ubiquitous, used in everything form soft drinks to ice cream to cookies and cakes. Because sucralose resists high temperatures without breaking down, it is used in many commercial and home baked goods.
New questions regarding sucralose and health
In June, 2013, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) downgraded sucralose from “safe” to “caution” in its list of food additives and their safety. Tate & Lyle, maker of Splenda, criticized this move, claiming the decision was based on unpublished and discredited research.
CSPI’s decision was allegedly prompted by a controversial Italian study, pending peer-review, finding that sucralose causes leukemia in mice.
In a review study published this month in the “Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health,” the authors claim that sucralose alters the composition of intestinal bacteria in lab rats, causing a reduction in beneficial bacteria. The study cites a 2008 study by the Department of Pharmacology at Duke University to support this claim.
The authors, Susan S. Schiffman, PhD, and Kristina I. Rother, MD, MHSc, head of the Pediatric Diabetes & Metabolism section at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), maintain that while it was initially believed that sucralose passed through the body undigested, “subsequent analysis suggested that some of the ingested sweetener is metabolized in the GIT (gastrointestinal tract).”
The study asserts that in human and rodent studies sucralose was shown to alter levels of glucose, insulin and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). The authors also warn that when sucralose is used for cooking at high temperatures it generates chloropropanols, a class of chemicals that may be linked to a higher risk of cancer.
“The approval of sucralose by global health authorities was predicated on the presumed reliability of information provided to them by the manufacturers, who claimed, for example, that sucralose is not metabolized in the gut,” said Schiffman in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA. “This claim is not supported by Tate & Lyle’s own data that shows multiple peaks and hence multiple metabolites in fecal extracts.”
Splenda’s website states, “after it is ingested, most (about 85%) is not absorbed and passes through the body unchanged in the stool. Of the small amount that is absorbed, most leaves the body unchanged in the urine within 24 hours.”
“Most.” But not all?
Tate & Lyle disagree with Schiffman and Rother’s the findings, as well as the Italian study, stating that all are based on old and discredited data, according to FoodNavigator-USA.
While studies that found negative health effects from Splenda, Tate & Lyle argues that FDA has reviewed over 100 studies confirming sucralose’s safety. The use of sucralose as a tool for managing weight and diabetes is endorsed by the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Sucralose and the environment
While there seems to be a question about the health risks of sucralose, there is little question that it persists in the environment, especially surface waters. Several studies have found that current water treatment processes are ineffective at removing sucralose from wastewater.
As a consequence, sucralose has been found in waters in the U.S. and around the word. A 2013 study by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) found sucralose in the Cape Fear River as well as in the waters of the Gulf Stream, 80 miles off the coast.
“Sucralose is highly water-soluble,” says Brooks Avery, chemistry professor at UNCW, “and the fact that it can make it out into the Gulf Stream suggests that it can travel a long way and that there’s very little that can break it down.”
After it was approved in Norway in 2005, researchers for the Norwegian Institute for Air Research detected sucralose in Mjosa and Oslofjord as early as 2007. According to the EPA, sucralose has been found in surface water of 27 countries in Europe.
A 2011 study by the Environmental Engineering Program and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University concluded that advanced water treatment processes had little effect on sucralose, indicating that accumulation in surface waters is likely.
A similar study by researchers at Arizona State University the same year found comparable results in water treatment plants and surface waters in Arizona.
The Yale study also looked at the effect of accumulated sucralose in water on certain aquatic plants, finding no adverse effects. However, the authors warn that while “sucralose does not appear toxic to plant growth, the persistent qualities of sucralose may lead to chronic low-dose exposure with largely unknown consequences for human and environmental health.”
Backing up the Yale study, a 2012 study by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research found that sucralose in waterways poses a limited risk to the environment, including plants, algae, crustaceans and fish, when measured with traditional ecological risk assessment approaches.
However, a recently published study by the University of North Florida, Jacksonville and the Florida Department of Health found that sucralose affected isolates of six bacterial species taken from areas where sucralose was present.
It is unknown what long-term effects the growing levels of sucralose in surface waters may have on the environment. Sucralose is currently used in over 4000 products, and according to Discovery News, the number of products containing sucralose increased by 14 percent in 2010.
The fact that sucralose is does not degrade can be viewed as a positive, since it could break down into more toxic intermediary chlorinated products. It can also help environmental engineers and anthropologists trace wastewater in the environment. However, several questions remain as to the safety of sucralose, especially in the environmental context. For this reason, the EPA has listed it as an item for discussion.
As studies continue to surface, more and more people are thinking twice about tearing open that little yellow packet.
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