There are plenty of reasons to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet. Sugar is addictive and it can cause systemic inflammation and weight gain, among other things.
And yet… we all love a little something sweet. That’s why artificial sweeteners are popular and why they’re an ingredient in many of the foods we love.
The question is, are they safe? Is adding artificial sweeteners to your diet a good way to get your sweet fix or is it as risky – or riskier – than eating sugar?
Because each artificial sweetener is chemically distinct, we’re going to look at one of the most popular sugar substitutes. Sucralose is an ingredient in the sugar substitute Splenda and in many low-calorie processed foods.
In this article, we’ll explain what sucralose is and how your body reacts to it. We’ll also review the risks of consuming it and tell you whether it’s safe to include in your diet.
According to WebMD, sucralose is an artificial sweetener that is 600 times as sweet as sugar. As we mentioned earlier, it’s the main ingredient in Splenda. It’s also used as an ingredient in diet foods and products that are sold as low-calorie alternatives to your sugary favorites.
Chemically, sucralose is made through a process that starts with table sugar, or sucrose. Three of the hydrogen-oxygen groups in the sugar molecule are replaced with chlorine atoms. The chemical make-up of sucralose prevents the body from breaking it down and absorbing it. That means that about 85% of all consumed sucralose is not absorbed by the body. The amount that is absorbed is not broken down or used for energy, which is why we can say that sucralose has no calories.
To make it easy for consumers, sucralose is usually combined with stabilizers and other ingredients. That way, a packet of artificial sweetener containing sucralose can be equivalent to a sugar packet of the same size, even though sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved sucralose for commercial use in 1998.
As we mentioned before, sucralose is the sweetener in Splenda. Store-brand sweeteners and generic substitutes may also contain sucralose. In addition, sucralose is an ingredient in things like:
While sucralose may be used in baked goods, it does not provide the same texture and consistency as real sugar.
Sucralose has been approved by the FDA and is in wide use. For that reason, you might think that there’s no risk associated with including sucralose in your diet. However, there’s mounting evidence that that’s not the case.
It turns out there are some potentially serious health risks to consider. Here are the ones that we think are the biggest concerns.
#1: Sucralose May Increase Your Risk of Diabetes
Diabetes is caused when your body does one of two things. It either:
When your body has no insulin or can’t recognize insulin, the result is high blood sugar or hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, nerve damage, and a host of other problems.
All carbohydrates are sugars but not all sugars are equal. Since the first introduction of artificial sweeteners, there’s been a focus on how they impact blood sugar and the risk of diabetes.
Let’s start with diet soda. A 2009 study found that daily consumption of diet sodas – many of which contain sucralose – led to a 36% increase in the risk of metabolic syndrome and a 67% increase in the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Another study from 2014 found that while sucralose was tolerated by healthy patients, it had the same metabolic affect as sugar on patients with diabetes.
The takeaway? If you have diabetes, prediabetes, or a familial disposition to diabetes, it’s probably best to avoid sucralose.
#2: Sucralose Increases the Risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s Disease
In 1991, Canada became the first country to approve sucralose as an artificial sweetener. What does that have to do with IBS and Crohn’s Disease?
It turns out that Canada’s early adoption of sucralose is something that can be tracked in the country’s incidence of both IBS and Crohn’s disease:
In other words, the incidence of Crohn’s disease increased by more than 600%. The increases are not quite as dramatic for IBS, but they’re still alarming:
A more recent study from 2018 confirmed the fact that sucralose doubles the risk of Crohn’s disease and likewise makes changes to gut health that may lead to IBS and other digestive issues.
#3: Heating Sucralose May Cause Carcinogenic Compounds to Form
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the FDA sometimes approves substances before any long-term studies as to their effects have been completed. In the case of sucralose, there’s both good and bad news on that front.
The good news is that there is no significant evidence to suggest that sucralose, by itself, causes cancer. A 2016 study concluded that even when exposure to sucralose was several times the expected range of daily use, there were no measurable carcinogenic effects.
However, that’s not the only news to report. As we mentioned earlier, sucralose – unlike many artificial sweeteners – can be used in baking. It doesn’t result in the same texture as real sugar, but it provides an alternative to sugar’s sweetness. That makes it a popular ingredient in processed foods.
Sucralose changes when it is exposed to heat. A 2010 study looked at the thermal decomposition of the hydrogen chloride released by sucralose when it’s heated. The study found that it chlorinated other food-related ingredients such as glycerol, generating a potentially toxic class of compounds known as chloropropanols. The researchers concluded:
Caution should be exercised in the use of sucralose as a sweetening agent during baking of food products containing glycerol or lipids.
We can’t say for certain that sucralose causes cancer. However, more research is needed and — in our opinion – that’s reason enough to be cautious about your consumption of sucralose.
#4: Sucralose Consumption Can Lead to Weight Gain
We write a lot here about the best ways to lose weight and keep it off. Being overweight or obese can lead to serious health problems. Many people turn to artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, to try to lose weight and improve their health.
You can guess where this is going. There is mounting evidence to show that artificial sweeteners such as sucralose create the same reaction in the body as sugar. In fact, they can cause people to gain weight rather than to lose it.
A 2012 study focused on the consumption of sugar-sweetened and sucralose-sweetened beverages in children. The study participants were given drinks that included either sugar or sucralose in a double-blind study.
The results may surprise you. Both groups gained weight. The group that consumed the sugar-sweetened drinks gained slightly more weight on average (7.37 kilograms) than the group that consumed the sucralose-sweetened drinks (6.35 kilograms.)
That might make it seem as if sucralose is better than sugar but that’s a slippery slope. The bottom line is that the kids who drank beverages sweetened with sucralose still gained weight. They just gained it at a slightly slower rate than the ones who drank beverages with sugar in them.
A 2013 study found even more reason to be concerned. It concluded that:
The study finally concluded that sucralose was approved by the FDA as a food additive. Food additives are less strictly regulated than drugs and medications. They fall into a gray area and the researchers noted that there is a need for additional research into the long-term effects of sucralose consumption.
Sucralose has been widely touted as a safe alternative to sugar. However, mounting evidence suggests that it’s not as benign as we’ve been led to believe. Eating large amounts of sucralose – especially when it’s been heated – can lead to health problems.
Our take is that it’s probably best to avoid artificial sweeteners. If you want a bit of sweetness, try a natural, minimally processed sweetener such as honey or maple syrup in limited quantities. Your body will thank you.