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Study finds a key ingredient in sweetener damages DNA

Artificial sweeteners – made from sucralose – have been sold as a guilt-free alternative to real sugar, offering maximum flavour with little to no calories involved. New research is uncovering the true cost of this man-made ingredient.

When zero-calorie sweeteners like Splenda first hit the market in 2004, they were met with equal parts enthusiasm and scepticism from consumers and nutritionists alike.

Those looking to sweeten up their morning coffee were delighted to do so without adding extra calories to each serving, while others believed the contents of these small sachets were doing more harm than good, given that they are artificially made.

Almost two decades later, sucralose is not only available in powdered or tablet form, but it is also an additive in many ‘sugar-free’ products, such as diet sodas, diet iced teas, sparkling drinks, sugarless syrups, chewing gum, and more.

Given its prevalence, researchers from two universities in North Carolina teamed up to investigate the health effects of sucralose-6-acetate – a key ingredient in artificial sweeteners. This deep dive has revealed that sceptics were right to be cautious.

Published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, the study discovered that sucralose is ‘genotoxic’. This means it is capable of harming genetic information within cells.

Current and future research

Upon exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate in numerous in vitro experiments, the researchers were able to observe the genotoxicity of sucralose.

‘The most compelling finding was that a contaminant and metabolite of sucralose could damage DNA in human blood cells and express genes in the human gut epithelium that can induce inflammation and even cancer,’ a participating researcher told Medical News Today.

Though this may raise concerns for any lovers of the occasional Diet Coke, the researchers have emphasised the need to conduct future investigations using human trials, as the current findings have been limited to in vitro and animal testing.

They also highlighted that the compound tested (sucralose-6-acetate) was studied in isolation. Though it is a key component used in sweeteners, it is not the majority ingredient, making up about 0.67 percent of the average product formula.

For now, it remains uncertain how this amount of sucralose in sweetener interacts with human cells once it is ingested – and whether enough of it survives in the gut to make a significant or harmful impact.

Still, the study has proven correct many longstanding suspicions that sweeteners contain carcinogenic ingredients. It has also laid the groundwork for necessary future studies of this relatively novel foodstuff.

So what should we do with this information?

As usual, the advice from experts continues to be ‘everything in moderation’.

Making the choice between natural sugar and artificial sweeteners will largely depend on how much of either product a person consumes of each product on any given day.

While most of us are privy to the occasional Tango Ice Blast or pack of Haribo, refined sugar is generally not the best way for us to meet our sugar intake needs, either.

Nutritionists almost unanimously agree that choosing naturally occurring sugar from foods like fruit and complex carbs – which are also packed with vitamins and fibre – is the way to go.

As for artificial sweeteners?

Well, it’s safe to say that a little bit every now and then probably doesn’t hurt. But if you were sceptical that these products could be damaging in any way, to begin with, it’s safe to say ‘I told you so.’