The artificial sweetener sucralose, which is sold under the brand name Splenda, could be metabolised in the gut to form a compound that damages DNA, in vivo studies have revealed. The harmful chemical sucralose-6-acetate was found to be formed during digestion, and can even be found in trace amounts in sucralose itself, as a byproduct of the sweetener’s synthesis.
The chlorinated artificial sweetener sucralose was first reported in 1976 and is as much as 650 times sweeter than sucrose. As a zero-calorie sweetener it was hoped that the compound could displace sugar and help reduce levels of obesity and linked conditions. The manufacturing process for the sweetener involves the synthesis of sucrose-6-acetate from sucrose and subsequent deacylation to produce the final product.
In vitro experiments that exposed a human white blood cell line to sucralose-6-acetate and then monitored it for genotoxicity markers, showed that the chemical effectively broke up DNA in cells that were exposed. The researchers subsequently conducted experiments that introduced sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate to human gut epithelial tissues, and these revealed that both compounds made the wall of the gut more permeable, allowing waste products to ‘leak’ into the bloodstream.
The researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceeded the safe threshold of 0.15µg per person per day that the European Food Safety Authority has set. That doesn’t even factor in the sucralose-6-acetate could be produced during metabolism, the researchers noted.
Further, the team discovered that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate had increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity. ‘It’s time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose, because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks,’ warned Susan Schiffman, the study’s corresponding author.
Sucralose was first approved in Canada in 1991 with other countries following suit, with the EU one of the last jurisdictions to pass it in 2004. Past studies have linked its consumption to various health conditions, including leukaemia, diabetes and obesity. Many other alternatives to sugar have also been developed and they can help to reduce sugar intake, but haven’t had a similar effect on obesity levels.
Last month, the World Health Organization issued new guidelines advising against the use of artificial sweeteners to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases. The agency cited research suggesting that these products don’t decrease body fat in adults or children long-term, and that their use may in fact increase certain health risks like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
S Schiffman et al, J. Toxicol. Environ. Health. B Crit. Rev., 2023, DOI: 10.1080/10937404.2023.2213903