Blue Heron in flight

Saturday, June 10, 2023

To sweeten or not to sweeten, that is the question...

Researchers have recently warned that artificial sweeteners might be more harmful to humans than previously thought.

The artificial sweetener sucralose, which is sold under the brand name Splenda, could be metabolised in the gut to form a compound that damages DNA, in vivo studies have revealed. The harmful chemical sucralose-6-acetate was found to be formed during digestion, and can even be found in trace amounts in sucralose itself, as a byproduct of the sweetener’s synthesis. The researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concluded that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceeded the safe threshold of 0.15µg per person per day that the European Food Safety Authority has set. That doesn’t even factor in the sucralose-6-acetate could be produced during metabolism, the researchers noted.

Here is the study, published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health B by Susan S. Schiffman, lead writer. The conclusions: 

The 8 projects performed in this study add to the large and growing scientific literature that report adverse biological impacts attributed to exposure to sucralose. In the current investigation sucralose-6-acetate, a sucralose impurity and metabolite, was found to be genotoxic with a clastogenic MoA associated with induction of breaks in DNA. Exposure of intestinal epithelium in vitro to mM concentrations of both sucralose-6-acetate and sucralose in the absence of intestinal bacteria impaired the integrity of intestinal barrier function. Sucralose-6-acetate induced expression of genes in intestinal epithelium associated with inflammation, oxidative stress, and cancer including MT1G and SHMT2. Sucralose-6-acetate also blocked two members of the cytochrome P450 family (CYP1A2 and CYP2C19) that metabolize both endogenous and xenobiotic compounds that might consequently lead to adverse toxicological exposures. These findings raise health and safety concerns regarding the continued presence of sucralose in the food supply and indicate that a regulatory status review needs to be undertaken.

Last month, the WHO warned against the use of such sweeteners and advised against the use of them to control body weight. They said that these products do not decrease body fat in adults or children long-term, and that their use may in fact increase certain health risks like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Now I have never felt comfortable using them so I really don't have a horse in this race. But I saw an interesting article on Medium today debunking the findings. Healthy objective counterpoint is always good. It is written by a man named Gideon MK who says that he is an epidemiologist and writer. He says you would have to drink 50,000 cans of sweetened soda to get to the damage level!

If you are not a member you might not be able to read it so I will synopsize with a little cut and paste.

Artificial sweeteners make headlines with an almost boringly predictable regularity. Whether it’s a scary story about heart disease, or some new fears that they’re secretly plotting to blow up Mt Rushmore, there’s always some new worry that makes headlines about sweet things that we put in our bodies.

The news recently is no different. Headlines across the globe have been screaming that sucralose, the artificial sweetener found in Splenda and some cans of Diet Coke, is genotoxic and giving everyone cancer. Apparently if you eat Splenda, rather than losing weight, you’ll degrade your insides into a sludge-like goop. Scary.

Fortunately for all of us who like artificially-sweetened things, the news is not nearly as scary as the headlines suggest. In reality, it’s extremely unlikely that these results mean much if anything for human health.

The study that has everyone in a tizzy is what’s known as lab-bench research, sometimes called basic science. The authors took sucralose-6-acetate, a product of sucralose that is created in your gut when you eat sucralose, and added it to some petri dishes with rat and then human cells to see what happened. They then looked at several markers of potential cell damage, and found that these were slightly elevated at the highest concentrations of sucralose-6-acetate that they used.

This led them to conclude that sucralose possessed some genotoxic effect, something that is often implicated in cancer, which is where all the headlines came from. In addition, the authors tested sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate on human gut cells, and noticed some similar effects. This led to the lead author arguing publicly that sucralose causes “leaky gut” and that it’s very dangerous to human health.

There is one huge reason why this research means almost nothing to your life — the dose. The authors used an extremely conservative cutoff known as the Threshold for Toxicological Concern (TTC) to argue that the doses that people eat of sucralose are plausibly dangerous. The TTC is a threshold developed for novel chemicals that we have a strong suspicion of being carcinogenic, but haven’t had time to test in humans yet. It’s very low, because obviously if we have no information on how dangerous a substance is, we have to be very cautious about exposure.

And it’s true —many people’s intake of Splenda is well above the TTC for potential genotoxic compounds of 0.0025µg/kg/day. Indeed, a single packet of Splenda contains 12mg of the stuff, which is about 100x higher than this threshold!

What this data shows us is that there may be some potential impacts of sucralose at extraordinarily high doses that are unlikely to be seen in real human beings. This may relate to human health, but it seems quite unlikely that it’s very meaningful to your life. In general, it’s very rare that lab-bench data should have a direct impact on the decisions you make every day — cells in dishes are just very different to real people.

This is interesting to me in that I have a serious skepticism about chemicals and human bodies, having fought chemical caused cancer for the majority of my life now. I have an inherent distrust of corporate food companies, their research scientists and supposedly safe human toxicity levels. 

If a chemical causes cancer in a lab rat, or other research animal, no matter the size and scale, I tend to think that it will probably have a malignant effect on humans as well, somewhere down the line. But I am not a chemist, nor am I a research scientist who works in this field of testing, so what do I know?

I sent the Medium article to a friend that is, A. She sent me back this response this morning: I didn’t read the science paper, but I’ll just say that In vitro to in vivo translation isn’t necessarily supported and human data trumps a lab experiment.


What do you think? In reading the article and the counterpoint, do you think there is cause for concern? Any research scientists or chemists that care to weigh in?


Blue Heron said...

‘The authors used an extremely conservative cutoff known as the Threshold for Toxicological Concern (TTC) to argue that the doses that people eat of sucralose are plausibly dangerous.’

This general approach is purely looking at first order effects. In vitro testing won’t show effects on hormonal control systems, for instance, just the effects on isolated cells. Newer understanding of system wide and second order effects related to epigenetic and micro biome changes show we should be pretty careful about such things.


Jon Harwood said...

I think that the simplest thing is to steer away from processed foods and items with additives. That is difficult enough but can be effective. An additive here a Splenda there probably won't cause problems. For what ever reason US food supplies are really loaded with extra stuff. Just take a walk around Major Market and it is clear that processed food is dominant perhaps since it is so convenient. It is a real pain in the backside to stick with fresh unprocessed foods but it can pay off.

Figuring out which thing is likely to screw you up is quite challenging and some may be dangerous and others may not.

All you have to do is walk down Main Street to see the results of the predominant US diet--porky people everywhere. If the additives don't screw you the fat sure will.

Lena said...

Ya ya…I known this for years but no one wants to believe this shit when they love the “ pink” stuff or the “ blue” stuff. Highly concentrated artificial addictive crap.