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With the growing trends of obesity and type 2 diabetes, many people are looking to alternative sweeteners to ease their sugar cravings.
Sucralose, known by the brand name Splenda, is an artificial sweetener approved for general use as a sugar substitute. But is Splenda safe?
Here we explain what Splenda is, how it is used, and what the science says about this sugar substitute. We also compare it with stevia, another popular sugar alternative.
Fast facts on Splenda
Here are some key points about Splenda. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Splenda is 600 times sweeter than sugar but provides very few calories
- Splenda is referred to as a high-intensity sweetener
- There are five artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S., including Splenda
- Although Splenda is considered safe to consume, recent research questions its role in disease
Splenda is a brand name artificial sweetener. It is used as a sugar substitute by people looking for low-calorie alternatives to their daily sweet treats.
Sweeteners like Splenda mimic the sweetness of sugar, without the calories.
The sweetness of Splenda is due to a compound called sucralose, a type of indigestible artificial sugar. This is made by replacing certain atoms in sugar with atoms of chlorine.
Sucralose is also combined with other digestible sweeteners like maltodextrin to make Splenda. Splenda is approximately 600 times as sweet as sugar; this is why sweeteners such as Splenda are known as high-intensity sweeteners.
Since it was introduced in 1998, Splenda has become one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market.
Splenda is a general sweetener that can be found in everything from baked goods to beverages. Frozen desserts, chewing gum, and gelatins are also commonly sweetened with Splenda; diet foods of all sorts contain the sweetener.
While many artificial sweeteners taste sweet when stirred into coffee or tea, many cannot be used in other ways; this is because many of them lose their sweetness when heated. Splenda, on the other hand, is stable at temperatures up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, Splenda is a favored sugar alternative in many recipes.
However, there are some drawbacks to using Splenda to replace sugar. Artificial sweeteners do not act the same way that plain table sugar does. For instance, artificial sweeteners may not caramelize or brown like sugar.
The sucralose in Splenda is one of five artificial sweeteners that have been approved for use in the U.S. The others are:
- Acesulfame potassium
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that Splenda was safe after reviewing a large body of information, including toxicology reports, trials, and clinical studies. Splenda was approved for general use in 1999 and has not been removed from the list since then.
From its discovery until very recently, Splenda was regarded as safe to consume. This may not be entirely true, however.
Splenda has always been considered to be biologically inert, meaning it passes through the human body untouched. However, a recent article posted to the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health noted that some of the ingested sweetener is metabolized, meaning that it is not entirely inert.
There are other interactions that medical researchers are currently investigating; for instance, ingested sucralose has been linked to altered intestinal microbe levels in mice; and it is believed that cooking with sucralose may produce toxic compounds called chloropropanols.
Human and rodent studies also indicate that sucralose might alter glucose and insulin levels in the blood. More research is needed to confirm these findings, but this challenges the idea that the compound is inert.
The researchers fed mice various levels of sucralose and noted any effects the sweetener had across their lifespan.
Overall, the team noted an increase in malignant cancers as their intake of sucralose increased. Specifically, the researchers found a higher incidence of leukemia in male mice associated with sucralose intake.
The teams’ findings go against the known data on sucralose up until this point; they note that, due to the popularity of Splenda, follow-up studies should be seen as urgent. Human studies will be necessary to establish the connection, if any, between cancer and sucralose.
Largely due to this study, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently downgraded the safety rating of sucralose for a second time, from “caution” to “avoid.” However, Michael F. Jacobsen, the president of CSPI noted that:
“The risk posed by over-consumption of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, particularly from soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, far outweighs the cancer risk posed by sucralose and most other artificial sweeteners.”
For this reason, Splenda may still be the option of choice for people looking to consume soft drinks and sugary beverages without the calories and increase in blood glucose levels. However, water, unsweetened tea, and carbonated water with a splash of fruit juice are all healthy options that can replace sugary beverages or beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as Splenda.
Another sweetener that has gained popularity recently is stevia. Stevia-based products are not based on sugar at all, but rather from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. Known simply as yerba dulce in its native South America, stevia is being explored as a relatively new sweetener option.
The sweetness in stevia comes from natural compounds called steviol glycosides, which are extracted from the plant to create various sweeteners. Like Splenda, steviol glycosides are non-nutritive sweeteners, meaning they provide no dietary calories.
These stevia extracts are 200-400 times sweeter than table sugar. Extracts of stevia which are 95 percent steviol glycosides are generally recognized as considered safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Products containing steviol glycosides are usually referred to as the sweetener “stevia,” rather than the plant itself.
It is important to note that, although the entire stevia leaf itself is traditionally used, this is not considered GRAS. Import of the whole leaf or crude extracts to the U.S. is not permitted, though the whole plant can be purchased and grown.
Those with type 2 diabetes or who want to lose weight may consider Splenda and stevia as options, as both provide a sweet sensation without the increased calories or sugar.
When comparing Splenda and stevia, sweetness is one of the things to consider.
Sucralose is 600 times as sweet as sugar, and stevia is 200-400 times as sweet, so less Splenda is needed initially to satisfy the palette. Over time, however, high-intensity sweeteners change how the brain responds to sweet tastes and can increase overall sweet cravings.
The acceptable daily intake (ADI) of Splenda, established by the FDA, is slightly higher than that of stevia. The average person can consume approximately 23 servings of Splenda each day (1 serving = 1 tabletop sweetening packet). For stevia, the number of servings per day is nine. Yet, at intake levels lower than the ADI, changes in gut bacteria and weight gain have been observed in studies for both Splenda and stevia.
Consuming too much stevia may lead to nausea, bloating, dizziness, muscle pain, and numbness.
Consuming too much of any artificial sweetener may cause diarrhea, bloating, gas, or have a laxative effect in some people. There is also the possibility of an allergic reaction, so it is important to pay attention to any changes in the body.
If an individual experiences an adverse side effect, they should consult a doctor.
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