Sucralose – a guide to artificial sweeteners

Made from sugar, tastes like sugar, says the advertisement about sucralose which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, calorie-free and heat-resistant. But does sucralose have any negative properties? What about the environmental impact, for example?

6 October 2020 •

In our arti­cle series ‘Guide to arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers’, we have come to sucralose which is found in 4,000 foods and some lakes. It is a chem­i­cal sweet­en­er that nei­ther the body nor the treat­ment plants can break down. It’s sweet, of course, but does it have a bit­ter after­taste? We’ll find out.

What is sucralose?

Sucralose is a high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er cre­at­ed chem­i­cal­ly with sug­ar (sucrose) as a raw mate­r­i­al. It was dis­cov­ered by chance in England in 1976 and was approved as a sweet­en­er by Canada as the first coun­try in 1993. In the EU it was approved in 2004.

Sucralose has E‑number 955. Its sys­tem­at­ic name is: 1,6‑dichloro‑1, 6‑dideoxy-β-D-fructo­fu­ra­nosyl-4-chloro-4-deoxy-α-D-galac­topy­ra­noside. These chem­i­cal for­mu­las are: C12H19Cl3O8. It is a white, almost odour­less pow­der in a crys­tal­lized form that is 600 times sweet­er than sugar.

Sucralose is found in over 4,000 foods and is a pop­u­lar sweet­en­er in the sports indus­try because it basi­cal­ly doesn’t pro­vide any extra calo­ries. It pro­vides no calo­ries as the body has dif­fi­cul­ty break­ing down sucralose. You uri­nate 85.5 per cent and poop out 11 per cent of the sucralose intake with­in five days. Only 3 per cent is processed via the kidneys.

China has the most fac­to­ries for the pro­duc­tion of sucralose. They have 255 sup­pli­ers. The USA comes in sec­ond place with 28 sup­pli­ers, while England, which invent­ed sucralose, has 11 sup­pli­ers. It is sold under a num­ber of dif­fer­ent brand names. The most famous brand is Splenda.

Sucralose is cre­at­ed by replac­ing three hydrox­yl groups on a mol­e­cule with three chlo­rine atoms. Sucralose is there­fore called chlo­ri­nat­ed sucrose or organochlo­rine com­pound, just like DDT and PCBs which are now banned pes­ti­cides. This has cre­at­ed some con­tro­ver­sy that we will return to.

utrustning laboratorier

‘I just tasted, I didn’t swallow’

Sucralose was cre­at­ed by chemists at the British com­pa­ny Tate & Lyle in col­lab­o­ra­tion with researchers at Queen Elizabeth College in 1976.

That is the cor­rect and offi­cial sto­ry, but it would cer­tain­ly be excit­ing to know how it actu­al­ly was cre­at­ed. When we dig up the sto­ry behind sweet­en­ers in this arti­cle series, we often encounter the same sto­ry for dif­fer­ent sweet­en­ers. It may be dif­fi­cult to know who did what, but it always ends up with chemists lick­ing on com­plete­ly unknown chem­i­cal compounds.

In the inter­view book From Sugar to Splenda, we find the dis­cov­er­ers’ voic­es about what happened.

Dr Riaz Khan asked his col­league Leslie Hough if he could give him some tetra­chloro-m-xylene. Leslie was busy and asked her doc­tor­al stu­dent Shashikant Phadnis to give it instead.

Riaz him­self says that it was a hap­py coin­ci­dence that both he and Shashikant came from India and there­fore did not under­stand each oth­er very well. Shashikant acci­den­tal­ly heard ‘test’ instead of ‘taste’, after which he put some tetra­chloro-m-xylene on a spat­u­la and tast­ed it.

When Leslie heard this, he got angry and thought Shashikant was crazy, tast­ing unknown com­pounds. Shashikant calm­ly replied that he only tast­ed, he did not swal­low. Much like a juve­nile, smok­ing cig­a­rettes and say­ing he doesn’t inhale very deep.

Leslie didn’t want to be a cow­ard and poured some tetra­chloro-m-xylene into a cup of tea. When Shashikant point­ed out that it should also be con­sid­ered crazy, Leslie swept the whole cup with the com­ment: ‘Forget it, I survive!’

After 17 years and count­less stud­ies lat­er, sucralose was regard­ed as safe by Canada (as the first coun­try) in 1993. Shashikant and Leslie were final­ly able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Is sucralose safe?

The answer is the same for all approved sweet­en­ers: Yes, it is safe enough to be approved, as long as you stay below the accept­ed dai­ly intake (ADI).

According to the Swedish Food Agency, the ADI for sucralose was set at 15 mg per kilo­gram and day after tri­als were made on rats los­ing weight after receiv­ing very high dos­es of sucralose. (The ADI val­ue cor­re­sponds to the high­est amount of a sub­stance that a per­son can take dai­ly through­out their life with­out risk to health.)

An Israeli study on rats pub­lished in 2014 in the sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal Nature showed that sac­cha­rin, sucralose and aspar­tame could affect the intesti­nal flo­ra, which can raise blood glu­cose lev­els. If the result is the same in humans, no one yet knows.

What cre­ates the most ques­tions regard­ing sucralose is that it is an organochlo­rine com­pound, just like DDT and PCBs which are now banned pes­ti­cides. There are researchers who believe that sucralose must have the same harm­ful effects, but the stud­ies that have been done don’t sup­port this the­sis. Chlorine is also found in table salt, which is a com­pound of sodi­um and chlo­rine. And that is some­thing we eat every day.

Livboj på vägg

Is sucralose an environmental culprit?

The answer to that ques­tion is: maybe. In this area, Sweden and Norway seem to be at the fore­front of research. On behalf of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (IVL) and researchers at the Norwegian Air Research Institute (NILU) have stud­ied the envi­ron­men­tal impact of sucralose.

In the same way that the body can­not break down sucralose but dumps it in the toi­let seat, the treat­ment plants do not seem to be able to break them down either, so the sub­stance con­tin­ues straight out into lakes and streams, where it is enriched.

That it is enriched means that it is passed on in every stage: from small fish to larg­er fish that we catch, and then sucralose is back on our plate again.

That’s what’s going on right now, but is it dan­ger­ous? We don’t know for sure yet. Future research will deter­mine that. There is, how­ev­er, a con­cern about what will hap­pen to our water if the use of sucralose were to increase drastically.

Benefits of sucralose

  • It is cheap.
  • It is 600 times sweet­er than sugar.
  • It can with­stand heat.
  • It’s sta­ble. It doesn’t break down so eas­i­ly and there­fore has a long shelf life. However, it does not have the preser­v­a­tive prop­er­ties of sug­ar, so it is only sucralose itself that ‘lasts a long time’.
  • It is calo­rie-free or basi­cal­ly calo­rie-free because it pass­es unprocessed to 97 per cent through the body and leaves us via the stool after five days.
  • It is cre­at­ed with sug­ar as a raw mate­r­i­al, which can give it a ‘nat­ur­al’ connotation.

Disadvantages of sucralose

  • It is a pure­ly chem­i­cal product.
  • It is an organochlo­rine com­pound, just like DDT and PCBs which are now banned pes­ti­cides. Even if it is not dan­ger­ous in the right amounts (just as com­mon salt is not dan­ger­ous in the right amount), it increas­es the consumer’s feel­ing of an unnat­ur­al and poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous product.
  • It is a com­plete­ly for­eign sub­stance to the body and the body doesn’t know what to do with it, so it cir­cu­lates in the blood for five days before it comes out via the stool.
  • Wastewater treat­ment plants can­not fil­ter it out or break it down, so sucralose goes straight into our lakes and streams and becomes part of the cycle.
  • It can affect the intesti­nal flo­ra in a neg­a­tive way.

Summary

All syn­thet­ic sweet­en­ers attract sus­pi­cion from both researchers and inter­net scep­tics, but sucralose seems to fly quite unno­ticed under the radar, unlike e.g. aspar­tame.

It doesn’t seem to affect blood sug­ar lev­els and is con­sid­ered calo­rie-free because the body can­not process it and we uri­nate most of it. This is pre­cise­ly what rais­es fears; sucralose may be an envi­ron­men­tal cul­prit because it goes straight into nature and is enriched in nature.

Sucralose is found in over 4,000 foods and is a pop­u­lar sweet­en­er in the sports indus­try because it basi­cal­ly doesn’t pro­vide any extra calories.

Why we like stevia

No sub­ject is com­plete­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial. Anything can be harm­ful in exces­sive amounts, even water. As a con­sumer, it’s not easy to know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.

There are pros and cons to both sug­ar and syn­thet­ic sweet­en­ers. We like ste­via which is a sweet­en­er of nat­ur­al ori­gin. The sweet­ness comes from ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides extract­ed from the sweet leaf plant.

In 2011, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) approved ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides as sweet­en­ers after 20 years of research. The food and bev­er­age indus­try in Europe is increas­ing­ly using ste­via, the world mar­ket for ste­via is grow­ing annu­al­ly by more than eight per cent.

Curious about stevia?

Are you curi­ous about ste­via and ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides? We devel­op ste­via extracts for dif­fer­ent appli­ca­tions. Take a look at our range of ser­vices or con­tact us if you want to know more about how we can help you.

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