No one has ever claimed that artificial sweeteners are a health food. The argument usually runs: “Well, they aren’t as bad as sugar.”
Or are they? We aren’t going to “take sides” here generally, but rather just make 8 observations – 4 pro and 4 con – regarding the study just released that recommends not consuming Splenda, the brand name of sucralose. Let’s start with the arguments against Splenda.
1. The study claims some very specific harms and risks
To quote a cogent summary of the study in MedicalNewsToday:
The results showed signs of genotoxicity. The researchers also found that sucralose caused leaky gut or damage to the gut lining. In addition, they observed the genetic activity of the gut cells and discovered that sucralose caused an increase in gene activity linked to oxidative stress, inflammation, and carcinogenicity.
The linkage to leaky gut syndrome – in which digestive matter well on its way to the usual exit venue leaks into your perineum – was the one we found to be, to use a technical clinical term, the grossest.
2. The quantities involved were realistic
This isn’t one of those studies where they gave rats 10,000 times what a human would consume and found an elevated risk of whatever, like toenail fungus or uromysitisis.
Quite the opposite. The amount of the chemical in question, sucralose-6-acetate, that can cause harm could easily be produced by the gut of a regular consumer of sucralose. Specifically, as one summary says:
The European Food Safety Authority has a threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances of 0.15 micrograms per person per day…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.
3. The manufacturer isn’t denying it
They say: “We rigorously and routinely test and monitor for any impurities in our products … We can confirm that sucralose-6-acetate is not present in Splenda Brand sucralose.”
Probably true. Except the harm is largely because your body turns sucralose into sucralose-6-acetate in your gut.
4. Gastro-intestinal (GI) disease is a major cause of hospitalizations, and general discomfort.
The top 25 reasons for hospitalization include 3 for non-elective GI problems, making GI the #3 reason for hospitalization behind birth events and musculoskeletal. (See #12,#13,#19.)
The American Gastroenterological Association is hardly an objective source, but they claim more than 60-million Americans have regular GI problems, and 40% of us are “disrupted” by them.
Not surprisingly given that prevalence, Quizzify’s GI and gut health quiz sets are among our most popular. That’s not data, but it is the case that the popularity of our quizzes correlates with the body parts/organs with the most problems.
Then again, there are four reasons not to worry...
5. The FDA has been convinced of the safety of Splenda
The FDA has reviewed 110 studies finding it safe. However, this comprehensive meta-analysis doesn’t contradict those studies. Rather, it finds different hazards. The FDA only reviewed for toxicity and effects on the nerve and reproductive systems.
6. Sugar is worse
Or is it? People arguing on behalf of sugar (or agave or honey or whatever) being preferable will say: “Our digestive systems did not evolve to eat chemical artificial sweeteners.” (To which advocates of artificial sweeteners will reply: “Nor did they evolve to eat, and especially drink, massive quantities of sugar.”)
Attention, consumers of artificial sweeteners: Even though you are not eating sugar, your pancreas “thinks” you are, and churns out extra insulin, which finds no sugar to metabolize. This creates its own set of harms. Recall Wile E. Coyote expecting to batter down Road Runner’s door, but Road Runner opens it allowing Mr. Coyote’s momentum to cause him to speed right through it and, of course, over a cliff.
The jury is still out on this one. There are, however, some sweeteners that are actually natural, like Truvia, which is stevia (derived from a relative of the chrysanthemum) or monk fruit. Of course, they come with their own drawbacks, like they aren’t 600 times sweeter than sugar, so you need much more. Stevia can have a bitter after-taste, and monk fruit is expensive.
7. The study was in vitro
Buried beyond the clickbait headlines of this study was the equivalent of the four words that should always get your attention: “Oh, by the way.” In this case, the “Oh, by the way” was that this study was done in vitro and in animals. It was not observed in humans. Plenty of things show one effect in animals but not in humans. And, to use a technical biostatistical term, a zillion studies on a zillion things show an effect in vitro and not in vivo.
8. Gastro-intestinal (GI) disease has not shot up since Splenda came on the market.
As mentioned, gastro-intestinal (GI) disease has been a major cause of both hospitalizations, and day-to-day discomfort for years if not decades.
However, no one has convincingly connected the dots between Splenda and an increasingly prevalence of GI symptoms and incidence of hospitalizations. There is anecdotal evidence that the latter are on the increase, but it’s not reflected in any data. Generally, the literature points just asserts growth in both. Like this headline "Digestive Disease Continues to Rise among Americans" is nowhere in the article supported, at all.
These articles then invariably attribute this growth (prior to this Splenda study) to the usual suspects of aging, stress, poor diet, lack of fiber etc., and there’s no reason to deny these factors. This article, for example, mentions every imaginable cause except artificial sweeteners.
If indeed GI complaints and hospitalizations had been flat until 2-5 years after Splenda became widely used, one could plausibly claim causality. And if Splenda became most widely used in the US, and America’s incidence rate diverged from the rest of the world, one could credibly claim causality. However, GI issues seem to be a worldwide phenomenon. This chart is a little hard to read, but blue is good:
The US seems to be doing better than most. A close reading suggests that the only way to improve is to throw a couple more steaks on the barbie.
Just for the record, you won't find us here at Quizzify eating this stuff. We're largely going back to/sticking with sugar, though of course in Quizziy-approved quantities for people who are not diabetic or pre-diabetic. (Yes, we have quizzes for those populations too.)
Also, Quizzify has a quiz on when and how to eat sweet foods to minimize blood sugar spikes, so we can quite literally have our cake and eat it too.
But avoiding Splenda may be us being overly cautious, because as mentioned, there is no epidemiological data supporting this study's assertion of causality. But whether or not causality is overstated, we can pretty much conclude that if you already have GI issues, you might want to stay away from Splenda. Just sayin’…
That is easier said than done. it is very difficult to avoid Splenda, if you are looking for sweet foods that don't contain sugar. While some products advertise it loudly, for others you need to look for "sucralose" deep in the ingredients label. (It is listed close to the end because it is so sweet, very little is needed.)
Here are a couple of samples.
With a name like Smuckers, it has to be sucralose:
In all fairness to Smuckers, so do most other low-calorie syrups. Many low-calorie processed foods do and a list of the types of products is here (scroll down), but not all of them do. Here is one that doesn’t. It uses monk fruit as a sweetener:
"Meeting employees where they're at" is a central tenet of wellness. Unless they are already diabetic and/or get some serious Virta-like coaching, they aren't going to stop eating sugar and artificial sweeteners and stick to water and broccoli, any more than we are. Our quizzes can lead them to significant improvement in their diets and food literacy, by reaching their own conclusions rather than being lectured to.