If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, you probably have tried Splenda, the brand name for sucralose, a sugar-free, no-calorie synthetic sweetener. Sucralose was approved in the U.S. by the FDA in 1998. It’s in the yellow packets, and is one of the most popular no-calorie sweeteners in the US. Splenda is also in Diet Pepsi and some other soft drinks. Since 2014, evidence has grown that Splenda might not be so safe, and in 2016, that evidence has many experts worried.
The new concerns are because of a study of mice published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health in January 2016. The study is better designed than the industry-funded studies, all of which concluded that Splenda was safe. In contrast, the 2016 article is based on a larger study of mice who were exposed in utero rather than in adolescence.
A previous review of research studies – some in rodents and some in humans — suggested that sucralose may have several different health risks. In adolescents and young adults, it affects the hormones that influence glucose levels in those who are healthy and in Type I diabetics. Rats that consumed sucralose had less than half the normal amount of gut bacteria, which can influence health, and unfortunately, it harmed the “good” gut bacteria more than the “bad.” Three months after the rats had stopped consuming sucralose, the rats’ gut bacteria were still not back to normal.
Sucralose may also interfere with medications. Rats who consumed it had higher levels of enzymes that affect metabolism, which could make medications less effective because they are more difficult to absorb.
Sucralose may even cause cancer. Mice who consumed sucralose are more likely to develop lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Splenda is widely marketed as a replacement for sugar in baking, in addition to coffee, tea, and some soft drinks. Since it is used for baking, it is especially worrisome that Splenda is now known to chemically break down when heated to temperatures commonly used in baking.  When sucralose is baked with glycerol, a type of sugar that is commonly used in baked goods, it can create chloropropanols, chemical contaminants that can cause cancer.
If you don’t like the risks of no-calorie sweeteners, what can you do? A teaspoon of sugar is only 17 calories, so using one or two teaspoons of sugar in tea and coffee is less than one quarter of the calories of most non-diet soft drinks. We also suggest drinking more water or unsweetened beverages — for example, water with a slice of lemon, orange, or other fruit is a delicious and healthy option.
Rebiana (brand name: Stevia) is the only no-calorie sweetener that CSPI doesn’t recommend avoiding, but they also say that more research is needed to be sure.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 1998. Food additives permitted for direct addition to food for human consumption; sucralose. 21CFR Part 172 (Docket No. 87F-0086). Fed. Reg. 63(64): 16417–16433. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-1998-04-03/pdf/98-8750.pdf (accessed December 5, 2013).
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