Products featuring Splenda are perceived as “natural” because even the FDA’s press release about sucralose parrots the claim that “it is made from sugar” — an assertion disputed by the Sugar Association, which is suing Splenda’s manufacturer, (McNeil Nutritionals).
The FDA has no definition for “natural,” so please bear with me for a biochemistry moment: Splenda is the trade name for sucralose, a synthetic compound stumbled upon in 1976 by scientists in Britain seeking a new pesticide formulation. It is true that the Splenda molecule is comprised of sucrose (sugar) — except that three of the hydroxyl groups in the molecule have been replaced by three chlorine atoms. (To get a better picture of what this looks like, see the image of a sucralose molecule.)
While some industry experts claim the molecule is similar to table salt or sugar, other independent researchers say it has more in common with pesticides. That’s because the bonds holding the carbon and chlorine atoms together are more characteristic of a chlorocarbon than a salt — and most pesticides are chlorocarbons. The premise offered next is that just because something contains chlorine doesn’t guarantee that it’s toxic. And that is also true, but you and your family may prefer not to serve as test subjects for the latest post-market artificial sweetener experiment — however “unique.”
Once it gets to the gut, sucralose goes largely unrecognized in the body as food — that’s why it has no calories. The majority of people don’t absorb a significant amount of Splenda in their small intestine — about 15% by some accounts. The irony is that your body tries to clear unrecognizable substances by digesting them, so it’s not unlikely that the healthier your gastrointestinal system is, the more you’ll absorb the chlorinated molecules of Splenda.
So, is Splenda safe? The truth is we just don’t know yet. There are no long-term studies of the side effects of Splenda in humans. The manufacturer’s own short-term studies showed that sucralose caused shrunken thymus glands and enlarged livers and kidneys in rodents. But in this case, the FDA decided that because these studies weren’t based on human test animals, they were not conclusive. Of course, there are countless examples of foods and drugs that have proved dangerous to humans that were first found to be dangerous to laboratory rats, and then again, countless others that have not. So the reality is that we are the guinea pigs for Splenda.
And now, are our children the next trial group? Thanks to an agreement between McNeil Nutritionals (makers of Splenda) and PTO Today, which provides marketing and fund-raising aid to parents’ associations, your elementary school’s next bake sale may be sponsored by Splenda — complete with baked goods made with the product.
Splenda side effects
Observational evidence shows that there are side effects of Splenda, including skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain. These show up at one end of the spectrum — in the people who have an allergy or sensitivity to the sucralose molecule. But no one can say to what degree consuming Splenda affects the rest of us.
If this sounds familiar, it should: we went down the same path with aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet. Almost all of the independent research into aspartame found dangerous side effects in rodents. The FDA chose not to take these findings into account when it approved aspartame for public use. Over the course of 15 years, those same side effects increasingly appeared in humans. Not in everyone, of course — but in those who were vulnerable to the chemical structure of aspartame.
As food additives, artificial sweeteners are not subject to the same gauntlet of FDA safety trials as pharmaceuticals. Most of the testing is funded by the food industry, which has a vested interest in the outcome. This can lead to misleading claims on both sides.
But one thing is certain: some of the chemicals that comprise artificial sweeteners are known hazards — the degree to which you experience side effects just depends on your individual biochemistry. Manufacturers are banking on the fact that our bodies won’t absorb very much of these compounds at any one time. And many of us don’t. But what happens when we are ingesting a combination of artificial sweeteners like Splenda dozens of times a week through many different “low–sugar” or “sugar–free” products?
People have been using artificial sweeteners for decades. Some react poorly, some don’t — the problem is, you never know until you’re already sick. Scientists are calling Splenda a mild mutagen, based on how much is absorbed. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what portion of the population is being exposed to the dangers of Splenda or already suffering from Splenda side effects. Until an independent, unbiased research group conducts long-term studies on humans (six months is hardly long-term!), how can we be certain? With all the new Splenda products on our shelves, it looks as if we are now in the process of another grand public experiment — without our permission. And we may not know the health implications for decades. As with all things, time will unveil truth.
So I urge you to be concerned about the potential dangers of Splenda — as with any unnatural substance you put in your body. And I am especially concerned about its use for children, which I recommend you avoid. But unlike many holistic practitioners, I do think artificial sweeteners can serve a purpose for some women. And that has to do with the old question — which is better, sugar or an artificial sweetener? Let’s start with sugar, where the problems all begin.