Many of us use the artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda) when we want something sweet. It’s also used in a lot of commercial products like diet soft drinks and the daVinci flavored syrups.
Sucralose was approved for use in the United States in 1998. It consists of sugar molecules in which a few groups have been substituted with chlorine atoms, so although the sucralose reacts with our sweet taste sensors, it’s not supposed to be taken up by the intestine and hence doesn’t contribute calories.
The initial reports were that sucralose was very stable and was not taken up by intestinal cells but passed through us and was eliminated with the feces. It was also said that sucralose wasn’t broken down in the intestine and passed through pretty much in its original form.
But now comes a review of sucralose that claims that sucralose isn’t as inert and benign as originally claimed. The 55-page document is free online.
One problem seems to be that in rats, at least, sucralose causes an increase in a couple of compounds (P-glycoprotein and two cytochrome P-450 [CYP] compounds) that cause substances taken up by intestinal epithelial cells to be resecreted into the intestine. When those substances are toxic, this is a good thing. The problem is that the body may see some prescription drugs as toxins and could hence take up less of them than usual if you ingested sucralose at the same time. If the drugs were essential for you, for example, a cancer drug, the sucralose could cause harm.
Sucralose also seems to alter the microbial composition in the gut, making the mixture include more of the “bad” bacteria and fewer of the “good.”
The authors say that sucralose isn’t as inert as it was said to be. Some of it is broken down in the gut, and the toxicity of these breakdown products is not known. Perhaps they are benign, but we just don’t know yet.
Cooking with sucralose at temperatures used in baking increases its breakdown, and some of these breakdown products are potentially toxic.
Finally, sucralose seems to affect glucose, insulin, and GLP-2 levels.
Details and more than 400 references are available in the review article. And the makers of sucralose, naturally, refute the claims in the review article.
So does this mean we should all run shrieking from any product that uses sucralose? I don’t think so. Much of the cited research is in rodents or hasn’t been confirmed with multiple studies. Not long ago saccharin was accused of causing bladder cancer in mice, but later work suggested that the mouse physiology caused bladder lesions with saccharin and this didn’t happen in humans.
As for possibly toxic breakdown products, all our food plus the numerous other compounds found in our food as preservatives, flavorings, and pesticide residues also break down, and until someone studies the effect of every breakdown product, we can’t guarantee that regular food – even organic food – doesn’t result in toxic byproducts.
Plants contain toxins designed to keep animals and insects from eating them. That’s one reason we’ve developed mechanisms like the one cited above, in which intestinal cells “spit out” some toxic molecules. So no matter what we eat and drink, we are going to be exposed to some toxic molecules. One critical factor is how much of any substance we eat.
This is one reason a varied diet is a good thing. For example, if it turns out that the salmon you love is contaminated with something and you ate that salmon with every meal, you’d get a lot of the toxic substance and your body might not be able to detoxify it all. If you ate it only once a week, your body would be most likely to be able to deal with it. We evolved in a world filled with toxins, and our bodies evolved to deal with them in small doses.
However, I think this article does suggest that we should use sucralose, and in fact, all artificial sweeteners, sparingly. There’s just too much we don’t know about their long-term use. But we have to enjoy life as well as controlling our diabetes, and if we crave something sweet, I think we should have something sweet.
Depending on how much carbohydrate we can tolerate, which is different for different people, the sweetener might be a little table sugar or honey, or the artificial sweetener that works best for us. I like stevia or an erythritol-stevia combination, but I use daVinci sugarfree flavored syrups because they have the best flavors, and they use sucralose as sweetener.
In fact, using a little of several different sweeteners might be a good idea because it means you’re not ingesting a lot of any one of them. What isn’t good is swilling down 16-ounce bottles of sugarfree soda with every meal. Or expanding the occasional sweet treat into a habit of having dessert with every meal.
I think the most important information in this review is that about the P-glycoprotein and CYP that make intestinal cells spit toxins back into the intestine. If you’re taking any life-saving drugs, it would be prudent to see if these were affected, or if you can’t find out (the full text of the article does have a list of drugs that are affected, but yours might not be on the list), just not ingest sucralose during the time you were taking that drug.