OPTING for artificially sweetened food and drink is an easy way for many to cut down on their sugar intake.
But the ingredient can come with its own problems, according to scientists, who found that sweeteners used in some fizzy drinks and ice cream can cause a ‘leaky gut’ or increase your risk of cancer.
A team of American researchers studying the widely used sweetener’s effects on the body found that a chemical formed when we digest it is ‘genotoxic’ – this means it breaks up DNA.
The chemical is produced in the gut after we ingest sucralose and it’s called sucralose-6-acetate.
Researchers also found it in trace amounts in the sweetener itself, meaning the genotoxic compound was already present in sucralose even before it was broken down in the digestive process.
“Our new work establishes that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic,” study author and adjunct professor in the department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, Susan Schiffman, said.
“We also found that trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate can be found in off-the-shelf sucralose, even before it is consumed and metabolized,” she added.
Researchers conducted a series of in vitro – test tube – experiments exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate.
They observed that the compound “effectively broke up DNA in cells that were exposed to the chemical”, according to Professor Schiffman.
The team also exposed human gut tissues to sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate in a series of tests and found that both chemicals caused a ‘leaky gut’.
Professor Schiffman explained: “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.”
Lastly, the research team looked at the genetic activity of gut cells to see how they responded to the presence of sucralose-6-acetate.
“We found that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate had increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity,” the study’s author said.
Oxidative stress when there is an imbalance between free radicals – unstable atoms that can damage cells, causing illness and aging – and antioxidants in your body. Meanwhile, a carcinogen is a substance or organism that is capable of causing cancer.
Previous studies have suggested that sucralose could dampen immune responses to cancer and other diseases.
The team behind the study said their research could cast doubt on daily intake thresholds set by health bodies for artificial sweeteners.
“To put this in context, the European Food Safety Authority has a threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances of 0.15 micrograms per person per day,” Schiffman explained.
“Our work suggests that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceed that threshold. And that’s not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose.”
The UK government sets an acceptable daily intake when it greenlights sweeteners for use in food and drink, according to the NHS. This is the maximum amount considered safe to consume each day over the course of your lifetime.
Though the addition of sweetening agents can be helpful in reducing your sugar intake, it won’t necessarily make whatever you’re eating healthier, it added.
Professor Schiffman concluded that the study raised “a host of concerns about the potential health effects associated with sucralose” and compounds produced when we metabolise it.
“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, I encourage people to avoid products containing sucralose,” Dr Schiffman stressed.
“It’s something you should not be eating.”