The artificial sweetener in question is sucralose – sold under the brand name Splenda – which is often used in baked goods, chewing gums, gelatins, frozen dairy desserts and sodas.
Based on the U.S. census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), 51.4 million Americans used Splenda in 2020. The next most popular brand, Sweet'N Low, which contains saccharin, was used by 25 million people.
For the study, researchers looked at sucralose-6-acetate, a fat-soluble compound produced when sucralose is digested, to determine how it affects the body, particularly DNA. They exposed human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate and analyzed them for markers of genotoxicity, or damage to DNA.
"We found that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic and that it effectively broke up DNA in cells that were exposed to the chemical," said Susan Schiffman, the lead author of the study.
Schiffman and her team reported that sucralose-6-acetate is a clastogen, meaning it directly causes DNA strand breakages. If left unrepaired or improperly repaired by the body, damaged DNA strands can lead to cancer.
Previous studies have found that sucralose can cause gut problems, thanks to its negative influence on the human gut microbiota.
According to a study published in the journal Microorganisms, sucralose consumption for ten weeks induced gut dysbiosis and altered glucose and insulin levels in healthy young adults. Gut dysbiosis is characterized by an imbalance in gut bacterial composition and changes in bacterial metabolic activities that lead to digestive disturbances.
Sucralose consumption was found to trigger dysbiosis by increasing the number of Blautia coccoides bacteria in the gut while decreasing Lactobacillus acidophilus. According to an earlier study by Russian researchers, people with Type 2 diabetes tend to have more B. coccoides in their guts than people with normal glucose tolerance.
Meanwhile, a separate study found that diabetics also have lower L. acidophilus counts compared to healthy individuals. These findings suggest that there is a possible link between sucralose consumption and Type 2 diabetes that needs to be explored.
Aside from diabetes and gut dysbiosis, sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate have also been linked to leaky gut syndrome.
As part of their study, Schiffman and her team tested both chemicals on human gut tissue. They found that sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate could "damage the 'tight junctions,' or interfaces where cells in the gut wall connect to each other." This can make the intestinal wall more permeable -- a hallmark of a 'leaky gut.' (Related: Detrimental to gut health, metabolism, blood sugar: Research reveals the toxic effects of sucralose.)
"A leaky gut is problematic because it means that things that would normally be flushed out of the body in feces are instead leaking out of the gut and being absorbed into the bloodstream," explained Schiffman.
Genetic analysis also revealed that the expression of genes associated with oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity were elevated in gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate.
Oxidative stress occurs when there are too many unstable molecules called free radicals in the body and not enough antioxidants to get rid of them. Oxidative stress can damage cellular lipids, DNA and proteins, which can trigger inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to serious conditions like diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.
One of the researchers' biggest concerns is that off-the-shelf sucralose products were found to contain trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate. The chemical is an intermediate product formed during the manufacture of sucralose, hence most sucralose products contain this impurity.
"To put this in context, the European Food Safety Authority has a threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances of 0.15 micrograms per person per day," Schiffman said. "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."
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of sweeteners, including sucralose. Like all other food additives, sweeteners must be deemed safe for consumption before they’re added to food or beverages.
The acceptable daily intake of sucralose recommended by the FDA is 5 mg per kilogram (2.2 lb) of body weight. For someone who weighs 68 kg (150 lb), 340 mg a day is considered safe. A packet of Splenda contains 12 mg of sucralose. According to the FDA's website, they monitor "the latest science available on sweeteners" to determine their safe use.
Sucralose has been deemed safe by other regulatory bodies, such as the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee Report on Food Additives, the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
The researchers said their findings are a general warning to regulators and the public as they raise a host of concerns about the potential health risks 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," warned Schiffman.
Watch the following video to learn more about artificial sweeteners and their negative impact on health.
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