Americans sure love sweets. Demonstrated by our country’s vast number of bakeries and doughnut shops per capita, our coming in second in the world for soda consumption, and the fact that we buy more candy than any other country; we can’t seem to get enough sugar.
But as a country that also has a high prevalence of obesity, many Americans work to find sugar substitutes to satisfy their sweet tooth without ingesting more calories. That’s where popular artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and erythritol come in. And even if you don’t recognize such names, you likely would by their brand names: Sweet n’ Low, Equal, and Whole Earth. Another popular sugar substitute is sucralose, better known as Splenda.
What is sucralose?
Sucralose is a no-calorie artificial sweetener that’s unique in that it’s actually made from real sugar. It’s chemically altered though, so it passes through one’s body instead of being used for energy the way calorie units are. As a result, “it has no effect on blood sugar levels,” says Jen Messer, a nutrition consultant and registered dietitian at Jen Messer Nutrition. To accomplish this, the naturally occurring parts of the sugar molecule, called hydroxyl, are manufactured out of sucralose and exchanged for chlorine, “which changes the structure of the molecule so that it is not broken down by the body’s digestive enzymes,” Messer explains.
Sucralose is categorized as a high-intensity sweetener along with other sugar substitutes such as aspartame, saccharin and stevia − all different than the sugar alcohols group of artificial sweeteners that include erythritol, sorbitol and xylitol.
Sucralose is popularly used as a sugar substitute in beverages like diet sodas and foods such as sugar-free desserts, yogurts, chewing gum and other low-calorie or sugar-free products, says Messer. It’s available in both liquid and powder form.
What are the advantages of sucralose?
Messer says that among the advantages connected to sucralose is that it doesn’t have the “bitter aftertaste” associated with some other artificial sweeteners, and that it is heat-stable, “which means it can be used in cooking and baking without losing its sweetness.”
Donald Hensrud, MD, an associate professor of preventive medicine and nutrition for Mayo Clinic, and the editor of “The Mayo Clinic Diet,” says that another of the things people like about sucralose is that it’s “600 times sweeter than sugar” so consumers don’t need much of it to sweeten their food or beverage.
And because of its unique chemical structure, “using sucralose or other artificial sweeteners as part of a balanced diet can be a useful tool for reducing calorie and sugar intake, particularly for individuals with diabetes or those looking to manage their weight,” says Messer. She still cautions against relying too heavily on any artificial sweeteners though, especially if doing so causes one to overlook nutrient-dense foods.
Is sucralose bad for you?
The safety of sucralose has been studied extensively and Hensrud says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “reviewed over 110 studies to determine that it is safe for the general population.” Messer adds that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA has also determined that sucralose is safe “when consumed within the established acceptable daily intake level of 5 mg/kg body weight per day.” This means that a person weighing 150 pounds can safely consume about 340 mg of sucralose and still fall below such levels. For reference, a single tabletop packet of Splenda contains about 12 grams of sucralose.
Messer says that some studies have suggested that sucralose may have negative health effects, such as increasing one’s risk of cancer or weight gain, “however, these studies have been small and inconclusive.”
Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” agrees that such studies exist, but echoes that the sugar substitute is considered to be safe. She does caution though that “because our body is unable to digest sucralose, it can disrupt the gut bacteria by reducing beneficial bacteria in the gut which can decrease the amount of nutrients absorbed.”
Messer adds that when using sucralose, some individuals may also encounter digestive issues such as cramping, bloating, gas pain or diarrhea. “As with any food or food additive,” she says, “it’s a good idea to be mindful of your own body’s response and consult with a healthcare professional if you have concerns.”