Sucralose (Splenda)

Originally Published: July 1, 2005
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Dear Alice,

What are your thoughts regarding the use of Splenda as a sugar substitute? I have heard that the body is not able to metabolize this and that it is excreted through the urine. Do you have any current research on Splenda and the side effects? I realize it is a relatively new product. Thank you!

Dear Alice,

I searched the archives and found no information on Splenda or sucralose. Lately, it seems like Splenda is gaining popularity in the crowded sugar-substitute category. It seems too good to be true — measures cup for cup like sugar, you can bake with it and mix it into drinks, and it is made from sugar so it really tastes like sugar. My two questions are... is this a safe product, or are there some disadvantages with the product? And secondly, if it is very safe and versatile, why aren't more companies using it now?

Dear Readers,

Sucralose, better known as Splenda®, has seen a huge jump in use in recent years. The contents of those little yellow packets can be found in everything from diet sodas to protein bars to juice boxes. People with diabetes and those wanting to dodge sugar and carbohydrates for other reasons compose the main fanbase for the artificial sweetener, and their loyalty has led to its surpassing every other pseudo-sugar currently on the market.

Sucralose received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998 for use as a tabletop sweetener in fifteen specific food categories, and then was approved in 1999 as a general purpose sweetener. The FDA testing requirements are rigorous, and artificial sweeteners must be proven safe at quantities several hundred times greater than expected human consumption. Because it found no increased risks in several categories — including cancer-causing potential, genotoxicity, and fertility studies — the FDA approved its use in all individuals, including pregnant/breastfeeding mothers, people with diabetes, and children.

So how does sucralose work? It is made by modifying sucrose, the disaccharide found in common table sugar, with three chlorine atoms. Chlorine — although most commonly thought of as the stuff that makes your eyes red in pools — is also an important component of many of our foods including salt (sodium chloride), so its presence shouldn't raise any alarm. Once in the body, sucralose passes through the digestive system without getting metabolized, which is why it does not yield any calories or energy. Most sucralose passes from mouth to anus unscathed, while the small amount that does get absorbed makes its exit through the urine.

Because of the modifications, sucralose itself actually tastes to us about six hundred times sweeter than sugar. In order for it to measure and taste with sweetness equal to sugar, Splenda is made by combining sucralose with maltodextrin, allowing it to both measure correctly and hold up under the high temperatures used in baking.

As with all artificial sweeteners, moderation is key. Keep in mind that, though sugar-derived calories may be absent, fat and calories from other ingredients are still out in full force in your favorite carb-free candy bar. In addition, sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are notorious for causing laxative effects — bloating, diarrhea, gas — in some snackers. This might be because the bacteria in our gut metabolize certain components of splenda and produce a fun byproduct: nitrogen gas. Also, the excess of "stuff" sitting in the gut causes osmosis to kick in, bringing water into the colon, potentially causing some unpleasant diarrhea.

One of the major deterrents to adding sucralose into more products is cost. The going rate for sucralose is significantly greater than that of sugar, though more and more sucralose-toting products are popping up despite this.

As with any new food product, be sure to stay informed as more research and data are published in coming years. For now, keep all things in moderation, and be sure to still eat your food pyramid's worth of nutritive fruits, veggies, and the rest (including the sweet stuff).