Teen Chemist and Splenda

For as long as artificial sweeteners have been used, there has been a varying level of controversy over the safety of their use; both for humans and the environment in general. Saccharin and Aspartame have been plagued by health concerns raised by researchers for decades. Most studies have shown that only in very high concentrations are they dangerous, however few long term (>10 years) studies have been completed, so lower dose, chronic exposure has yet to be rigorously  investigated. Currently, most diet sodas use aspartame and saccharin, including my favorite, Coke Zero. Another very popular sugar substitute, sucralose has begun to steal the spotlight away from aspartame in recent years, taking over popular drinks like Crystal Light, Tim Horton’s and Starbucks coffee.

The chlorinated sugar substitute called sucralose 200px-sucralose2svg(commercially marketed as Splenda (TM)) was first synthesized in 1976, as part of a collaboration between Queen Elizabeth College in London and the Tate and Lyle Chemical Company. It is manufactured by the selective chlorination of sucrose, in which three of the hydroxyl groups are replaced with chlorine atoms. Supposedly the graduate student, Shashikant Phadnis, working on the synthesis misunderstood his professor’s request to test the chemical as a request to taste the chemical. Just goes to show, sometimes to make a lucrative discovery, a chemist must take the ultimate test!

Whatever happened, it has been found that Sucralose is approximately 600 times sweeter than sucrose, and since being introduced in the USA in 1998, has become one of the leading sweeteners on the market. One of the main reasons for this is that studies have shown that sucralose is highly stable; it doesn’t break down easily due to heat so cooking with it is safe. It also doesn’t dechlorinate over time, photo degrade under visible light, or biodegrade with common bacteria. It is also very insoluble in fat cells, so all of us Americans don’t have to worry about getting a heart attack on the treadmill (at least not from sucralose!). In fact, sucralose is so darn stable, it doesn’t even get broken down in waste treatment plants.

Meet Smitha Ramakrishna, a senior at Corona del Sol High School in Chandler, Arizona, who has been doing research at Arizona State University about sucralose’s inability to be broken down and how this make affect the environment. At only 17 years of age, she has been researching sucralose for nearly 2 years, as part of her greater goal of trying to help with global water issues. She also founded an organization named AWAKE, which is dedicated to increasing her community’s awareness about water-related issues.

She has found that after subjecting sucralose to treatments similar to those used by waste water treatment plants, the sweetener resisted bacterial digestion. Only after a long time and under UV irradiation in the presence of high concentrations of titanium oxide (TiO2) did the sugar break down. Considering that few plants use these methods, the majority of sucralose in wastewater enters the ecosystem. She doesn’t say for sure what effect this will have, but says that preliminary studies suggest high concentrations of sucralose may poison fish.

See more here: That Splenda you’re drinking will be in our water supply for a while

Personally, I think people should use xylitol more. First studied in the 1970’s, almost no negative effects have been found due to ingestion of even 400+ grams a day (imagine 400+ grams of sugar! BLECH!) and many positive health effects have been proven ranging from plaque-reducing effects to boosting your immune system. It is about as sweet as sucrose, and has 2/3 the caloric content.

That said, I am still gonna go get me a coke zero.


  1. I’ve noticed that artificial sweeteners (sucralose, malitol, etc.) largely carry the stigma of causing digestional issues. If sucralose is chemically and structurally bulletproof (for lack of a better term), I’m curious to know why it causes upset stomachs.

  2. They can mock me, they can scorn me, they can beat me, but they’ll only pry my Diet Coke from my cold, dead hands.

  3. sugar freak says:

    imagine 400+ grams of sugar! BLECH!

    You must know that a single can of coke/most sodas has ~40 grams of sugar – and I definitely know people who have 10 cans of coke per day.

  4. Seriously? 10 cans a day? Wow…I had no idea.

    Xylitol, Malitol and other sugar alcohols tend to act as mild laxatives supposedly because they are “not fully broken down during digestion”. I am not entirely sure what this means, though.

    Sucralose is a chlorinated sucrose derivative so far hasn’t been shown to be processed during digestion. Perhaps the lack of sucrose is what causes the upset stomachs? Is sucrose a digestive regulator?

    Am I a biochemist? No. Just spitballing here.

  5. Blegh, I can’t stand the taste of diet soda. Go big or go home.

  6. most diet sodas are not sweetened by sacharine but use aspartame and acesulfame. These two sweeteners taste less foul when used together rather than alone. Personally I dislike all artificial sweeteners because of their sickly lingering taste that reminds me of liquorish (I hate liquorish).

    And Splenda was a big let-down. In early 90s I used to work with a guy who developed an industrial manufacture route for Sucralose and he used rave about the stuff. When it was finally introduced in US a decade later I hurried to get hold of Splenda-sweetened stuff and it was just as disgusting as aspartame…

  7. That’s a fresh take on Splenda I haven’t heard before, but it makes sense.

    There is an entire class of people that seem to take artificial sweetening seriously and seem to be out to prove that every sweetener made in a lab is bad for you and (ZOMG!) causes teh cancer. One study (DOI: 10.1080/15287390802328630) that came out showing that it messed around with enzyme and gut microflora levels and slightly elevated fecal pH in rats is being lobbed around as a sign that sucralose is the devil incarnate. They also constantly point out that Splenda is CHLORINATED is big quivering letters. This sort of reactionary phobia always makes me raise a skeptical eyebrow when someone mentions sweeteners. Fortunately, this take is a lot more sober.

    I find it hilarious that the student misunderstood and tasted the substance. In my imagination his professor was not a native English speaker and had one of those accents that made him transpose the short “e” with the long “a”.

    Saying “Joost taste it.” Instead of “Just test it.” Come to think of it, maybe a strong Scottish accent would do the trick as well.

  8. Chemoptoplex says:

    Is there an artificial sweetener which hasn’t been discovered by falling into someone’s mouth?

    Anyway, the two primary chlorides in sucralose always made me kind of nervous with regards to what they might do to my DNA, but if the stuff is this bullet-proof I suppose I should quit my bitching. Still not going to drink it though. I’m with Milkshake. I have yet to find an artificial sweetener which doesn’t inhabit some sort of horrible uncanny valley of dead-eyed zombie impersonation of sweetness.

  9. heh, the romans used lead acetate. Few things we are gonna try could be worse than that.

    This kinda goes back to a post we had earlier where it isn’t just synthetic sweetners that scare people, it is pretty much anything with the word synthetic in front of it. People are really on the cancer watch now (most wishing they are more careful decades ago…) and with good reason.

    For pete’s sake, sawdust has been shown to cause cancer in high enough doses, and 1 in 6 people in america will battle with a form of cancer in their lifetime.

    I am saying I understand the motivation for the fear, but don’t condone the prejudiced response that people tend to have towards chemistry and “chemicals”.

    BTW: a little more digging brought up this study:
    Labare, Michael P.; Alexander, Martin (1993). “Biodegradation of sucralose in samples of natural environments”. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 12 (5): 797–804. doi:10.1897/1552-8618(1993)12[797:BOSACC]2.0.CO;2.

    These guys claimed that sucralose was readily biodegradable. Now this teenager calls bulls**t nearly 17 years later. Funny actually…she was almost born the year the study came out. In fact, she was probably born while the study was underway…interesting how that worked out.

  10. Requisite biochemist here about using other sugars:

    you don’t want to disturb the natural flora that inhabits your gut. You might not be able to digest them, but there surely is a bacterium who can.

    As mentioned above, with xylitol and malitol, I would at the very least, expect a case of chronic flatulence… as the bacteria go crazy on the stable food supply.

    On the bright side, you could then corner the niche market with a Bean-o like dietary suppliment, to digest said low-digestible sugar.

    I’ve been looking for years to find a quick cure for the beer-farts… caused by giving the bacteria in your belly a high dose of undigestable-by-you polysaccharides and even got a bottle of bean-o in my stocking @ christmas from a hopeful girlfriend…but alas, the problem remains a mystery.

  11. i thought aspartame can cause cancer in laboratory animals “

  12. interesting that someone so young has done some real research about something she is passionate about!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *