Sucralose: An Update
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | June 10, 2008

Artificial sweeteners are a part of modern life--they’re a blessing and a curse. They can provide an alternative to sugar to feed our sweet tooth and reduce calories. They’re also blamed for everything from migraines to multiple sclerosis. I addressed those concerns in a Newsletter on sucralose over three years ago (1). However, I’ve gotten numerous questions recently about the safety of sucralose, which includes both Splenda® and its generic equivalents; it’s time to look at the research again.

Sucralose 101
Sucralose is a sugar molecule that’s chemically modified to make it sweeter. Three hydrogen molecules are replaced with chlorine molecules in a complex chemical reaction. The results are a modified sugar molecule that’s 600 times sweeter than the original. Because the body doesn’t have the enzymes to break down the sucralose molecule, it passes through the system and is eliminated.

The word chlorine just freaks people out. There’s no evidence that elemental chlorine is released from sucralose--certainly no more than the minute quantities that would be released from salt, tomatoes, fish, or any of the thousands of foods that contain some form of chlorine. In some municipalities, there’s likely to be more chlorine in a cup of water from the water-treatment plant than would ever be obtained from the typical use of sucralose.

That doesn’t stop anti-artificial-sweetener groups from writing page after page about the dangers of sucralose, much of it revolving around the issue of chlorine. It comes down to this: prove it. Hire a laboratory that can assess serum chlorine levels in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial; prove that sucralose is broken down in the gut in a substantive way and is absorbed. Until then, there’s no evidence to support their position.

Reported Negative Effects
One of the criticisms of sucralose is that it triggers migraine headaches. There have been two case studies published on the relationship of migraines and sucralose (2-3). The problem is that the patients all had a variety of other possible triggers for migraines. In addition, the writers were not researchers--they were clinicians. That doesn’t mean they can’t write about their observations, but it does mean that they can’t establish cause and effect with a single subject. Think about it for a moment. These are physicians who treat people for migraine headaches every day. With the hundreds of patients that they see, they found two who reported that sucralose--or a variety of other factors--might have been a trigger. It is an observation. Period.

Other negative effects have been reported on anti-artificial-sweetener websites. Besides migraines, there are joint pain, diarrhea, rash, muscle aches, and seizures also reported. But here’s the thing: even on a website dedicated to reporting negative events about sucralose, there have been 15 comments in just under four years--and some of those are repeats. Out of the millions of doses of sucralose used everyday, there have been just two case studies and 15 comments. There’s no scientific basis to link sucralose to any of the negative effects--just observations.

Other Studies
There have been two studies in humans that have examined the use of sucralose. Researchers compared the American Diabetes Association diet with an experimental low-fat diet using fat replacers and sugar substitutes including sucralose (4); the diabetic subjects using the experimental diet experienced a greater improvement in metabolic and anthropometric profile, including a greater increase in HDL cholesterol and larger decreases in HbA1c, body weight, and body mass index. Another study involved Native American subjects who are prone to type-2 diabetes (5); researchers sweetened low-sugar watermelon with sucralose to test palatability. The substitute was palatable to a wide variety of ages, thus providing an alternative to a high-sugar food.

These are not earth-shattering studies, but they’re research on human subjects where side-effects were monitored. There were none that wouldn’t be expected in such studies.

Bottom Line
Since the first sucralose Newsletter, there have been numerous e-mails that have circulated and website postings that talk about the negative effects of sucralose. None have contributed any more scientific evidence that sucralose is detrimental to anyone’s health. Does that mean that no one will ever have a negative reaction to sucralose? Absolutely not--individual negative responses will always be a factor with any food or drink. But there’s no evidence at this time that we are at risk for any disease from the regular use of sucralose.

Use it or don’t--the choice is yours. As I concluded the last time, if you crave something sweet, eat some fruit. That’s the better life way.

  1. Sucralose: Just the Facts. Newsletter. January 27, 2005.

  2. Bigal ME, Krymchantowski AV. Migraine triggered by sucralose--a case report. Headache. 2006 Mar; 46(3):515-7.

  3. Patel RM, Sarma R, Grimsley E. Popular sweetener sucralose as a migraine trigger. Headache. 2006 Sep; 46(8):1303-4.

  4. Reyna NY et al. Sweeteners and beta-glucans improve metabolic and anthropometrics variables in well controlled type 2 diabetic patients. Am J Ther. 2003 Nov-Dec; 10(6):438-43.

  5. Collins JK et al. Consumer acceptability of low-sugar watermelon sweetened with non-calorie sweetener by a Native American community. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2006 Aug-Sep; 57(5-6):363-8.
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