Stern: Toxic sugar substitutes wreck havoc

Last week, I talked about the effects of artificial sweeteners on your mind: how these chemicals are feeding the American addiction to sweet foods. But how do they affect you physically? Now, let’s look at the science behind their toxicology.

Most academic sources cite that artificial sweeteners cause people to crave sweet tastes and overeat both sugary and savory foods. But proponents of sugar substitutes, including their manufacturers, may claim that the increased use of diet soda has not caused, but rather has been caused by, rising obesity rates in the American population. Yet even if the direction of this relationship may not be definitive, those who oppose the use of the chemicals in American products have another, stronger argument against their use: the most serious physiological threat of sugar substitutes is not their ability to induce overeating of other foods, but the consumption of the chemicals themselves.

The simple fact that artificial sweeteners are so drastically different from naturally occurring sugars should raise some red flags. In contrast to naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose), sugar substitutes are added during preparation or processing and change the taste of the “natural” state of the food. Sugar substitute chemicals are also different from table sugar (sucrose), which is an organic compound found in some fruits like pineapple and apricot but more often chemically created from glucose and fructose. In fact, the sweet taste derived from these compounds is so different from that of sucrose that they are combined in complex mixtures just to produce a taste that is close enough to “naturally sweet.” Americans are not only becoming accustomed to the highly sweet tastes, but also to consuming foods that are increasingly far from their natural state.

But the compounds that make up the mixtures used in most artificially sweetened foods have individual toxicological effects as well. For example, the fruit juice sweetener cylamate — banned by the FDA in 1970 but still used in many parts of the world today — has been proven to cause bladder cancer in animal studies. Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, found in Sweet’N Low, has been proven to cause cancer in rats, although by a mechanism not present in the human body. In light of this, the EPA approved the chemical for use in December 2010. Aspartame, which comprises Equal and NutraSweet, causes neurological and psychiatric side effects at levels of 40 milligrams of the sweetener per kilogram of body weight or greater, but the chemical was deemed safe for ingestion by the FAO and WHO because these levels are significantly higher than national averages. Sucralose, the sweetener used to make Splenda and Altern, is a chlorinated sugar, so it belongs to a class of carcinogens called “organochlorides.”

It is also important to note that the effects of these chemicals can change once they enter the human body; in vivo, they can morph into more highly dangerous compounds. Despite a 1980 petition from the FDA Board of Inquiry confirming that aspartame, a low-calorie sweetener used in over 5,000 American food products today, “might induce brain tumors,” the chemical was approved for commercial production in 1981. Since then, the FDA has justified its use by citing the manufacturer’s claims that aspartame is composed only of aspartic acid and phenylalanine — both relatively innocuous chemicals already produced naturally in the human body. But The Nutrasweet Company conveniently left out one ingredient that some argue must be added to this list; during human digestion, aspartame also breaks down into methanol, which is a toxic chemical causing blindness, vomiting, headaches and death. Did you that know you are drinking a compound found in antifreeze, gasoline and varnishes every time you have a can of Diet Coke?

Health effects alone aren’t the only significant chemical concern. Sweeteners used as food additives also change the structure of the goods they put in. The composition of high-intensity sweeteners can alter the texture of the food, and this requires the addition of even more chemicals to bring it back to taste “natural.” Bulking agents called maltodextrins must be added to all “diet” soft drinks to return the drinks to a “wet state.” So the Fresca beverage you just drank started out “dry” due to the sugar substitutes added, and this was rectified to improve the mouthful by adding yet another (although highly digestible) manufactured additive.

But selective benefits cannot be completely discounted. The sweeteners do technically facilitate weight loss in the short term and under very controlled use. Artificial sweeteners allow diabetics to limit their sugar intake and regulate their blood sugar levels. Reactive hypoglycemia patients can also avoid the intake of high-glycemic foods with the use of artificial sweeteners. Finally — take this economic trade-off for health as you will — artificial sweeteners often cost much less than sugar because they have a longer shelf life.

And, as with any consumer product, we must be aware of the political and social factors affecting science research; the booming industry for artificial sweeteners is inevitably subject to potential biases. From a pessimistic standpoint, we must consider who might be capable of delaying important research results. Splenda — which has the least amount of toxicological data released so far — is used in products of high-power companies such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks. Most controversy surrounding the sucralose compound used in Splenda is not on its human toxicology but rather on the commercial claim that it is derived directly from sugar. The company that markets this sweetener is McNeil Nutritionals, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson. While I would love to hope that all the toxicological data found has been released, I cannot help but wonder what executives at Johnson & Johnson would pay to keep Splenda’s influence on their stock increasing.

Rebecca Stern is a junior in Berkeley College.


  • AnotherYalie

    I’m unsure why YDN would so much as consider publishing an article littered with such strongly discrediting phrases as “most academic sources”, “simple fact[s]”, “from a pessimistic standpoint”. On balance, I would call it hogwash-inflated-scare-stories—the problem is that we can’t separate any defensible argument from all the twaddle. I hope the author doesn’t write research papers for classes this way.

  • Yalie

    Shouldn’t that be “wreak”?

  • zena

    Great article!! The FDA has regularly had to keep banning artificials sweeteners, generation after generation. Yet companies of course keep coming up with more; as this article points out so well, so far all of them work chemically and organically in unnatural ways, and often in extremely harmful ways. Are those 90 calories you save really worth it? Try water!

  • RimaKleinerMSRD

    As a registered dietitian and consultant to the food and beverage industry, I provide nutrition advice on a number of health issues, including consumption of artificial sweeteners. Research continues to show that nonnutritive sweeteners are safe and can actually help promote weight loss management. And, as mentioned in the article, these sweeteners are a great “sweet” alternative to people with diabetes. It’s also important to remember that artificial sweeteners can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.

  • RichMurray

    re GC Ebers study, females harmed more by body making methanol into
    formaldehyde in brain via ADH enzyme: 589 references, WC Monte,
    retired Prof. Nutrition: Rich Murray 2011.01.08
    Saturday, January 8, 2011
    [ at end of each long page, click on Older Posts ]
    [you may have to Copy and Paste URLs into your browser]

    Woodrow C Monte, PhD, Emiritus Prof. Nutrition gives many PDFs of
    reseach — methanol (11% of aspartame) puts formaldehyde into brain
    and body — multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, cancers, birth defects,
    headaches: Rich Murray 2010.05.13
    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    [ Other formaldehyde sources include alcohol drinks and
    tobacco and wood smoke,
    while adequate folic acid levels protect most people. ]

    589 references, many abstracts and full texts

  • Newshoes522

    What does the research suggest about the deleterious effects of splenda (sucralose) on the body? Is there any reason it would cause a metallic taste to linger in the mouth hours or days after it’s been consumed? I would appreciate hearing an expert’s opinion on the matter…

  • eimol

    The story cites comments that are ancient story, most of the safety concerns mentioned in this story have been exhaustively challenged by reliable scientific sources in the past, nd there is nothing new in it.

    Validated scientific studies prove that all artificial sweeteners are safe. Please check your sources of information before you publish false and questionable information which may continue to confuse the general public about these food ingredients which have been studied extensively over the past 40 years.

    There is extensive scientific and toxicological studies published and shared on the internet about every single sweetener, your claim that there are no studies published about some of them are false.

    As with any substance, including the so called “natural” sweeteners that you mentioned, abuse and excessive consumption can produce harmful effects. All substances consumed have risks and benefits including water. As Paracelso the father of toxicology once said “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” Or, more commonly “The dose makes the poison.”
    That is to say, substances considered toxic are harmless in small doses, and conversely an ordinarily harmless substance can be deadly if over-consumed

    In order to complement your article and so that you can make an informed opinion, please consult the Rscientifically reliable information published by serious and professional organizations:

  • penny_lane

    Gosh, I hate it when I have some great havoc going, and toxic sugar substitutes go and wreck it.

    Really, YDN?