A new study discovered that a chemical found in sucralose, which is sold under the trade name Splenda, damages DNA.
Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found sucralose-6-acetate, the chemical that forms when we digest Splenda, is “genotoxic,” meaning it breaks up DNA.
The chemical is also found in trace amounts in Splenda itself, raising questions about how the sweetener may contribute to health problems, researchers said.
“Our new work establishes that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic,” said Susan Schiffman, corresponding author of the study and an adjunct professor in the joint department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The team also found that trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate can be found in off-the-shelf brands of the sweetener.
The European Food Safety Authority determined that consuming the chemical in quantities exceeding .15 micrograms per day is of “toxicological concern.”
“Our work suggests that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceed that threshold,” Schiffman said. “And that’s not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose.”
For the study, researchers conducted a series of in-vitro experiments, exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate and monitoring for markers of genotoxicity.
“In short, we found that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic, and that it effectively broke up DNA in cells that were exposed to the chemical,” Schiffman said.
The researchers also conducted in-vitro tests that exposed human gut tissues to sucralose-6-acetate.
“Other studies have found that sucralose can adversely affect gut health, so we wanted to see what might be happening there,” Schiffman said.
“When we exposed sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate to gut epithelial tissues – the tissue that lines your gut wall – we found that both chemicals cause ‘leaky gut.’ Basically, they make the wall of the gut more permeable. The chemicals damage the ‘tight junctions,’ or interfaces, where cells in the gut wall connect to each other.”
“A leaky gut is problematic, because it means that things that would normally be flushed out of the body in feces are instead leaking out of the gut and being absorbed into the bloodstream.”
The researchers also looked at the genetic activity of the gut cells to see how they responded to the presence of sucralose-6-acetate.
It was determined that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate affected genes related to the following:
- Oxidative stress
- Oxidative stress is associated with aging and is defined as a disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and antioxidant defenses, according to the National Library of Medicine.
- Essentially what this means is oxidative stress can damage tissues and organs, which can then lead to diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease
- This is essentially means that sucralose-6-acetate can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
“We found that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate had increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity,” Schiffman said. “This work raises a host of concerns about the potential health effects associated with sucralose and its metabolites.”
“It’s time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose, because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks.”
If nothing else, Schiffman encourages people to avoid products containing sucralose.
“It’s something you should not be eating,” she said.
The paper, “Toxicological and pharmacokinetic properties of sucralose-6-acetate and its parent sucralose: in vitro screening assays,” is published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Part B: Critical Reviews. The paper was co-authored by Troy Nagle, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at NC State and UNC and Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State; Terrence Furey, professor of genetics and biology at UNC; and Elizabeth Scholl, a former researcher at NC State who is currently at Sciome LLC.
The authors have no conflicts of interest. The research was done with support from the Engineering Foundation at NC State.