Health risks of artificial sweeteners undetermined

As the latest entry in the menu of non-nutritive sweeteners, Splenda is visible in restaurants, coffeehouses and grocery stores, and has become the nation’s top-selling branded artificial sweetener, joining a list of sugar replacement options that includes saccharin (“Sweet’N Low”) and aspartame (“Equal,” “NutraSweet”).


 “It’s made from sugar so it tastes like sugar,” its manufacturer McNeil Nutritionals claims. Splenda is twice as sweet as sugar, has no aftertaste and can be used anywhere sugar is used, including in baking.


“The reason I use Splenda is because it there’s less information out there saying that it will kill you,” PSU graduate student Lisa Sibbett said. “NutraSweet is supposed to give you multiple sclerosis and make you go blind, and Equal gives you cancer. So Splenda, well, nobody has said anything bad about it yet.”


“Splenda has a sweet, sugar-like taste that consumers desire and like,” said Monica Neufang, director of communication of McNeil Nutritionals. “It’s safe, it’s been used by millions of people around the world and it’s been approved in 80 countries without question.”


Also known as sucralose, Splenda is made from sugar through a patented process that replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms. The process converts sucrose to sucralose and renders it inert. Sucralose passes through the body without being digested. Unrecognized as a carbohydrate and is not broken down, it is calorie-free.


Many see this as a tremendous dietary advantage, particularly when obesity rates in the United States are soaring. Sugar and corn syrup products add about 700 calories a day to the average U.S. diet, almost one-third of commonly recommended daily calorie levels.


“I try to avoid calories,” Sibbett said. “Splenda is calorie-free, which is a plus.”


However, studies have linked the consumption of diet sodas and artificial sweeteners to increased rates of weight gain and obesity, particularly in women. A report in the July 2004 issue of the International Journal of Obesity found that "artificial sweetener may disrupt the body’s natural ability to ‘count’ calories based on food sweeteners.”


Splenda also has vehement opponents who believe that the sweetener carries serious health risks. Among the unproven dangers attributed to Splenda are claims of thymus gland shrinkage, liver enlargement, anemia, spontaneous abortion and kidney stones.


Splenda has also been described as a type of chlorocarbon, a compound long associated with various types of genetic, reproductive and end-organ damage.


The body of current medical and scientific literature has yet to support any of these claims.

“Generally this sort of lore appears most often online, and comes from certain activists,” Neufang said. “Most of them are proponents of natural sweeteners ?” sugar, honey and stevia (an herbal sweetener).”


According to Neufang, Splenda has been subjected to one of the most thorough safety testing programs ever conducted, with more than 100 scientific studies demonstrating its safety.


Splenda has also come under fire from “big sugar.” The United States sugar industry has tremendous lobbying clout and maintains a stranglehold on its own profits. Between government price controls, trade-quota restrictions, farm bills and loan guarantees, sugar produced in the U.S. costs 2.5 times more than sugar grown elsewhere in the world.


What does this have to do with Splenda? The large profits of sucralose have begun to eat into sugar’s market share in the U.S., causing sales to decline by 1.8 percent in 2003 and by another 4.31 percent in 2004.


Big sugar attempted to fight back by mobilizing health authorities against Splenda, but with no success, given the continued supportive findings of Splenda-based research. The sugar industry next lobbied the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Splenda engaged in false advertising with “Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”


Unfortunately for big sugar, the claim is true. In February 2005, McNeil Nutritionals LLC filed a lawsuit against the sugar association, grower members and their public relations agencies.


“We asked that they be compelled to quit spreading incorrect information about our product,” Neufang said. “The lawsuit is currently in discovery. We hope to see some activity in the first quarter of 2006.”


A level of public unease remains not just for Splenda but for other artificial sweeteners as well. Originally ruled as “safe” by the FDA, untoward findings are beginning to crop up, decades later.

Aspartame has long been an object of concern on the part of many physicians and scientists, with informal studies showing correlations between aspartame consumption and tumors of the brain and central nervous system.


In July 2005, the Cancer Research Center of the European Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Bologna, Italy, reported a study in the European Journal of Oncology, demonstrating a statistically significant increase in lymphoma and leukemia in rats fed aspartame products.


Both malignancies have also increased significantly in humans in Italy since the use of aspartame became commonplace.


Cyclamate, approved in the 1950s, was pulled from U.S. shelves in 1970, when research linked it to various types of cancer. A recent review of the evidence has cast doubt on the original research, and the Food and Drug Administration is considering restoring cyclamates to public use.

Researchers have found that the main constituent of stevia can be converted in the laboratory to a compound causing structural changes in genes, a type of mutation sometimes associated with the development of cancer.


As for saccharin, animal studies have linked it to the development of bladder cancer. Congress requires that all saccharin-containing food products bear a warning label: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”


For now, Splenda is the artificial sweetener of choice for many people.


Sibbett adds Splenda to the six to eight cups of coffee that she drinks in a typical day as a graduate teaching assistant. “I’ve kind of gotten used to the fake sugar taste,” she said.