Sucralose has been marketed as being just one small step away from sugar nutritionally but tasting just like it. It’s used in some “no carb” snack foods and regular folks, as well as people on carb-restricted and diabetic diets, use it for baking, coffee and cereal as a sugar substitute.
I was at a dinner party recently and one of the guests told me about some work he did on sucralose (I have since confirmed his story with numerous sources, though some of his details were a bit mixed) that I found very concerning. He explained that to make sucralose, the manufacturers use highly toxic chemicals to alter sugar molecules so they become an agent your body can’t recognize or metabolize (hence removing the caloric absorption). Then, he made a comparison to Agent Orange. Agent Orange? This was something I needed to read more about.
Since that conversation, I’ve done a good deal of reading about sucralose. I found out that his basic story behind the sweetener is true. But there is lots of contraversy around the data, so I’ll try to help clear that up here.
To make sucralose, they need to change the molecular structure of sucrose by substituting hydroxyl groups (oxygen-hydrogen groups) with chlorine molecules.The result is a compound 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Sounds innocent and awesome, right? Chloride naturally occurs in many things eat and can be digested by humans. So why would sucralose be problematic?
Well, the first issue of concern is that when they make sucralose, the chloride is combined in the compound with covalent bonds (there are other covalent bonds in nature that are perfectly healthy, we are just talking about chloride covalent bonds). In nature, chloride is connected with other molecules only with ionic bonds. That means the chlorine stays with its other atomic partners as it goes through your digestion. A covalent chlorine bond, however, is weaker than ionic, which means that chlorine could break off as a free radical and cause damage in your body. Even the company that makes sucralose states that “most” of it doesn’t break down in your body for digestion. What remains of sucralose (estimates range from 15%-40%) after “most” passes through you is chlorine free radicals.
Here’s where the Agent Orange comparison comes in–only man made chemicals like Agent Orange, DDT and PCBs have covalently bound chlorine compounds. Though I can’t speak to these comparisons beyond the covalent chlorine bond similarities, but I’m not a big fan in theory of eating anything our body can’t recognize in an attempt to fool it. I think nature is smarter than we realize and we should not tinker with it for small caloric gain. And, I’m certainly not looking to deliberately add free radicals to my diet unless they come in a margarita.
But, many people will argue that just like some GMOs, if your body doesn’t recognize a molecule, it won’t digest it and will send the offender on through your system. No harm, no foul. However, in addition to the chlorine free radical issue, there is significant concern that our bodies have negative reactions to unrecognizable compounds. For example, people can be allergic to “new” GMO foods even if they weren’t allergic to the foods from which the GMO was made. And, this 2013 study in the Journal of Toxicology talks further about the fact that sucralose may in fact NOT be as inert in the body as asserted by many.
But that’s only one of my three major concerns about sucralose. The second issue to look at is how those chemical bonds forced to happen in the lab. Being in the food industry myself, I’m fascinated by the chemicals allowed in food processing. The FDA does not require companies to disclose “processing agents” used to make food products. In fact, a company is allowed to decide (within very broad parameters) what will be called a “processing agent” in the food it produces. Sometimes this is an enzyme, for example, that eats all the carbohydrate so you can use the protein left over as a protein supplement. Sometimes the agent is a chemical, or many chemicals. But with Splenda, there’s no secret, there’s a patent. So let’s look at sucrose’s processing agents as summarized by toxicologist Janet Hull from Splenda’s patent:
“According to the Splenda International Patent A23L001-236 and PEP Review #90-1-4 (July 1991), sucralose is synthesized by this five-step process:
1. sucrose is tritylated with trityl chloride in the presence of dimethylformamide and 4-methylmorpholine and the tritylated sucrose is then acetylated with acetic anhydride,
2. the resulting TRISPA (6,1′,6′-tri-O-trityl-penta-O-acetylsucrose) is chlorinated with hydrogen chloride in the presence of toluene,
3. the resulting 4-PAS (sucrose 2,3,4,3′,4′-pentaacetate) is heated in the presence of methyl isobutyl ketone and acetic acid,
4. the resulting 6-PAS (sucrose 2,3,6,3′,4′-pentaacetate) is chlorinated with thionyl chloride in the presence of toluene and benzyltriethylammonium chloride, and
5. the resulting TOSPA (sucralose pentaacetate) is treated with methanol (wood alcohol, a poison) in the presence of sodium methoxide to produce sucralose.”
Yes, that chemical process was used to make that little yellow packet you tear every morning and pour in your coffee. Now, I’m NOT a chemist. I cannot go through that list of chemicals and tell you how they are metabolized. And, I’m sure one could argue that either they are in non-discernible amounts or are undigestible or non-toxic. But I can relate to you what my dinner companion (who is a scientist) said about how these chemicals are handled at the plant. This is what concerns me.
In the U.S., sucralose is reportedly made in a remote area where there is less likely to be harm from a toxic spill of the chemicals needed to make the product. Within the isolated building, robots that handle the chemicals used in the process. Humans are kept out so they are protected from the chemicals. That’s a bit creepy, and begs the question of how do they safely dispose of those chemicals, but at least no one is exposed to the toxic chemicals used to make it (assuming there is no accident), right? Not so fast.
Most sucralose is made in China, not the U.S. And in China, and they do not use robots to handle the chemicals used to make sucralose. They use their employees.
What a terrible thought that employees are being exposed to toxic chemicals to provide me a no calorie sugar substitute. But if that isn’t enough to pull you away from sucralose, let’s review my third area of concern–questions of negative health effects of eating sucralose raised in recent study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environment. According to this 2013 study, sucralose:
1. May lead to increase in weight gain
o More importantly, it can harm your body’s ability to self regulate carbohydrate consumption.
2. Decrease in gut bacteria by 50%
o Gut bacteria are key to healthy digestion and healthy immune systems.
3. Increase in PH level in the gut
o Increased acidity in the gut interferes with digestion and can damage the vital intestinal wall lining.
4. Imbalance in P-glycoprotein
o This could interfere in the absorption of medications used in chemotherapy, AIDS treatment, and treatments for heart conditions.
On top of this, consumers have reported a host of other negative side effects from eating sucralose, including migraines, dizziness, allergic reactions and seizures. Now, you can find a lot of articles on the web, including a usual favorite of mine, www.snopes.com, that say all these concerns are unfounded. I’ve read their arguments and, though some I believe are founded, they still leave a number of very concerning issues on the table including the ones I discuss here. If you are interested in reading more, I encourage you to do so, and to do so with a discerning eye. There is a lot of industry sponsored research and information out there and our government is always slow to respond to real health threats from the food industry.
There are similar problems with other sugar substitutes, so the answer isn’t switching to another kind. And, stevia is questionable as well but that’s another blog in the future. So for the 95% of us who like to have some sweetness in our food and drink, what should you use for sweetener?
Whole fruit. Start with whole fruit and then you’ll hardly, if at all, need any additional. Dicing fresh fruit is the best way to maintain nutrients and fiber but purees and dried fruits are also far superior to sugar or sugar substitutes. Just don’t juice your fruit. It’s a fad for some now, but since juicing eliminates the fiber, your body treats it metabolically is just like sugar.
So throw a few dates in your smoothie, toss berries and coconut on your granola, or put slices of apples on your peanut of sunflower butter sandwich. It will be a treat for your taste buds and your body. If you really want sweetener for your coffee, try palm sugar or molasses (yes, it’s quite tasty in coffee).
Your food will taste better and your body will be happier and you won’t be asking anyone to handle a toxic agent like nerve gas to satisfy our sweet tooth.