Sucralose (Splenda)

Originally Published: July 1, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 12, 2014
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(1)
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!

 
(2)
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 become ubiquitous in coffee shops, diners, and supermarket shelves. The contents of those little yellow packets can be found in everything from diet sodas to protein bars to juice boxes. Believe it or not, sucralose has been around for over fifteen years!

So, is it safe? 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. Cue a collective sigh of relief.

So how is sucralose able to provide that sweet taste without the carbs or calories? Sucralose is a modification of sucrose, the disaccharide found in common table sugar. It’s created by replacing three of the hydrogen-oxygen groups in sucrose with three atoms of chlorine (yes really, chlorine). Although most commonly thought of as the stuff that makes your eyes red in pools, chlorine is also an important component of many of our foods (including salt — a.k.a. 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 through the digestive system from mouth to anus unscathed, while the small amount that does get absorbed makes its exit through the urine (more on that later!).

Because of the modifications, sucralose itself actually tastes about six hundred times sweeter than sugar. Think about it: instead of adding an extra packet or two to coffee to make it sweeter, one packet of sucralose actually makes that coffee much sweeter. So if sucralose is actually quite different from sugar, why does Splenda® seem like such an easy replacement for sugar in recipes? Splenda® owes its ability to be measured and baked at high temperatures in a comparable way to sugar thanks to its composition of both sucralose and maltodextrin. Some studies show that consumption of sucralose does impact blood sugar levels and insulin response differently from sugar, which has raised some concern about a possible increased risk for diabetes. At this time, however, there does not yet seem to be enough evidence pointing conclusively in one direction or another. Stay tuned!

As with all artificial sweeteners, moderation is key. Some of the disadvantages of using sucralose include:

  • Sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie or fat-free. Sugar-free products may utilize a calorie-free sweetener, but fat or calories from other ingredients can still be found in your favorite low-carb treat.
  • 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.
  • Sucralose costs significantly more than sugar, so products made with sucralose may also have a higher price tag.
  • Yet another consideration is sucralose’s impact on the environment. Remember how sucralose remains intact throughout the digestive process and either passes out of the body through urine or solid waste? Current studies are examining the increase of sucralose in waste water and the subsequent increases of sucralose in purified water whose treatment process did not remove the sucralose.

As with any food product, it’s best to stay informed as more research and data are published in coming years. For now, a good rule of thumb is to eat all foods in moderation. And remember, if you’re craving something sweet but want to keep it healthy, a little fresh fruit may be just enough to satisfy your sweet tooth!

Alice