The Center for Science in the Public Interest is downgrading sucralose, the artificial sweetener better known by the brand name Splenda, in its Chemical Cuisine guide to food additives. The nonprofit food safety watchdog group had long rated sucralose as “safe,” but is now placing it in the “caution” category pending a review of an unpublished study by an independent Italian laboratory that found that the sweetener caused leukemia in mice. The only previous long-term feeding studies in animals were conducted by the compound’s manufacturers.
A recent study, done at an independent Italian laboratory has indicated that when mice were fed with Splenda regularly, they developed leukemia. This evidence, on top of the long list of studies discouraging the use of Splenda, is a major reason the FDA has changed its safety rating.
A 2002 study showed that Splenda ingestion damaged the DNA of mice. DNA damage can be a cause of cancer in many cases. In a 2008 study, researchers reported that Splenda ingestion had the potential to kill off necessary bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Killing this bacteria can often lead to disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, as this bacteria often helps with digestion and fights off invaders. In this unpublished study, researchers found that the sucralose can cause leukemia in mice who are exposed before birth.
CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine gives the artificial sweeteners saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium “avoid” ratings, the group’s lowest. CSPI considers rebiana, a natural high-potency sweetener obtained from stevia, to be “safe,” though deserving of better testing.
“Sucralose may prove to be safer than saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium, but the forthcoming Italian study warrants careful scrutiny before we can be confident that the sweetener is safe for use in food,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
Despite its concerns about the risk posed by artificial sweeteners, CSPI says consumers who drink soda are still probably better off drinking diet soda than sugar-sweetened soda, which poses the greater and demonstrable risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gout, tooth decay, and other health problems. Soft drinks—diet or regular—often contain questionable food dyes and so-called caramel coloring that is contaminated with cancer-causing 4-methylimidazole. To avoid the risks of both sugars and non-caloric sweeteners, CSPI urges people to switch to water, seltzer water, flavored unsweetened waters, seltzer mixed with some fruit juice, or unsweetened iced tea.
CSPI has also made new entries in Chemical Cuisine for some other natural, high-potency sweeteners that aren’t widely used yet but are on the horizon. Monkfruit extract, used in some foods, contain substances called mogrosides that are about 200 times sweeter than sugar, but with an aftertaste described as licorice-like. Monkfruit, also known as Luo Han Guo and Lo Han Kuo, has been used as food in China for several hundred years.Monatin is a plant-based sweeter derived from the root of a shrub found in South Africa that is supposedly some 3,000 times sweeter than sugar. Those two sweeteners might also prove to be safe, but CSPI gives them a “caution” rating on the basis of inadequate testing.
Chemical Cuisine includes much more than sweeteners. While most of the additives will be disclosed on ingredients lists, some will not. Transglutaminase is a naturally occurring enzyme that’s presumably safe on its own. Known informally as “meat glue,” the enzyme lets chefs or manufacturers fuse together inexpensive cuts of beef into the distinctive shape of more expensive filet mignon. Besides cheating consumers, that practice can result in a less-safe steak since bacteria ordinarily confined to the surface of the steak are driven into the interior.
Castoreum is a rarely used additive that CSPI, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, assume to be safe. Any food manufacturer that actually uses it will likely list it among “natural flavorings” on ingredient lists and not disclose where castoreum actually comes from: the anal castor sacs of beavers.