A new study from the North Carolina State University has revealed a link between a widely used sweetener and a chemical compound known to cause DNA damage. The study found the chemical is formed when digesting the sweetener and trace amounts of the chemical are also found in the sweetener itself.
Sucralose is widely distributed under the trade name ‘Splenda,’ and is also contained in many food products, such as protein bars, shakes, and energy drinks. One of the chemical compounds contained in sucralose is sucralose-6-acetate.
“Our new work establishes that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic,” according to Susan Schiffman, an author of the study.
Shiffman, who is also an adjunct professor in the joint department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, added that trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate can also be found in off-the-shelf sucralose, even before it is consumed and metabolized.
The European Food Safety Authority has determined the threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances to be 0.15 micrograms per person per day.
“Our work suggests that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceed that threshold. And that’s not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose,” Schiffman said.
The study involved a series of in vitro experiments in which human blood cells were exposed to sucralose-6-acetate. The cells were then monitored for signs of genotoxicity. Results showed the chemical effectively broke up DNA in the cells that were exposed to it.
Gut Health Concerns
In vitro tests were also conducted, exposing human gut tissues to sucralose-6-acetate.
“Other studies have found that sucralose can adversely affect gut health, so we wanted to see what might be happening there,” Schiffman said.
“When we exposed sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate to gut epithelial tissues—the tissue that lines your gut wall—we found that both chemicals cause ‘leaky gut.’ Basically, they make the wall of the gut more permeable. The chemicals damage the ‘tight junctions,’ or interfaces, where cells in the gut wall connect to each other,” she added.
A leaky gut means that things normally excreted by the body leak out of the gut and absorb into the bloodstream.
The team also examined the genetic activity of the gut cells when exposed to the presence of sucralose-6-acetate.
“We found that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate had increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity,” she said.
According to Schiffman, this raises many concerns about the potential health effects associated with sucralose and its metabolites.
“It’s time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks. If nothing else, I encourage people to avoid products containing sucralose. It’s something you should not be eating.”
Sucralose is a chlorinated artificial sweetener used worldwide as a sugar substitute in thousands of food, beverages, and pharmaceutical products. Its sweet taste was discovered at Queen Elizabeth College in London as part of a program to chemically modify sucrose (table sugar) for possible industrial applications, according to usrtk.org.
The sweetness potency of sucralose varies depending on the specific application but it is on average 400-650 times greater than table sugar.
Controversies around the sweetener are not new. A 2016 study on the carcinogenic effects of sucralose in mice concluded “a significant dose-related increased incidence of males bearing malignant tumors,” contradicting previous data that the sweetener is biologically inert, according to the authors of the study that was published in Taylor & Francis Online.
Another study from 2022 published by MDPI shows that “sucralose amounts, far lower than the suggested acceptable daily intake, alter the balance of the gut microbiome, while also being associated with significant elevations in glucose levels and serum insulin in response to glucose loads.”
Moreover, in 2018 researchers found that given over a six-week period, the artificial sweetener sucralose worsens gut inflammation in mice to the point that they developed Crohn’s disease, in a report published in IBD.
Concerns are not confined to the use of sucralose alone. Other artificial sweeteners have also been subject to controversy based on adverse effects on health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new set of guidelines last month, recommending against the use of non-sugar-sweeteners (NSS) to control body weight or reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
The WHO says that using non-sugar-sweeteners does not help with weight control in the long term and recommends using natural sugar alternatives such as fruit or consuming unsweetened food and beverages.
“The recommendation is based on the findings of a systematic review of the available evidence, which suggests that the use of NSS does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children,” the WHO said.
“Results of the review also suggest that there may be potential undesirable effects from long-term use of NSS, such as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.”