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Artificial sweeteners ending up in waterways

Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and it is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners available to consumers.

Many people use sucralose to sweeten their coffee or tea because it's calorie-free.

Sucralose is also added as an artificial sweetener to more than 4,000 food and drink products that Americans consume.

Commonly marketed as Splenda®, sucralose is sugar that has been chlorinated.

"What that does is prevents your body from understanding it as a source of energy," says Jeremy Morgan, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Basically, your body doesn't know what the substance is anymore, so it is unable to absorb any calories from it.

"Eighty-percent of [sucralose] passes straight through your gastrointestinal track into the toilet," explains Dr. Mike Richardson with Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N. C. "The rest of it is absorbed through the blood and passed through the urine."

This means undigested or unchanged sucralose is sent through the sewer system to your local wastewater treatment plant.

Since most plants are unable to filter out such a small compound, sucralose then exits these facilities and is discharged into our waterways.

According to Morgan and fellow researchers at UNCW, the amount of sucralose that winds up in the environment each year would fill up a dump truck -- and that's only for the Wilmington, N. C. area alone.  

Samples obtained from treated wastewater in North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana all contained sucralose.

"We sort of said, 'Wow, not only is this stuff out there, but nothing is happening to it,'" Morgan says.

Traces of sucralose have even been found in the Gulf Stream.

Since sucralose doesn't break down, scientists say that means we could be circulating our sweetener all around the globe.

For now, little is known about the impact, if any, a sweetener-laced ocean could have on the environment and wildlife.

According to the FAQ section on Splenda's website, consumers can be assured that sucralose is environmentally safe. Furthermore, the website cites a range of study results which indicate the sweetener does not accumulate in the food chain.

Meanwhile, researchers at UNCW say only time and additional testing will determine if this is true.

Depending on the source of your drinking water and the purification process at your water treatment plant, researchers say it is possible you could re-ingest sucralose.

Researchers at UNCW we spoke for this story tested the water in their own tap, but they were unable to find any traces of the sweetener.

McNeil Nutritionals, the maker of Splenda, counters that "The statements made by staff at the University of North Carolina Wilmington about SPLENDA® No Calorie Sweetener (sucralose) and  the environment significantly misrepresents the facts. Every global regulatory authority which has reviewed the environmental data on sucralose has determined that sucralose does not pose an environmental risk. The data from Marine Chemistry discussed by the university is not new data, but from a study in 2009 that concludes the "… environmental ramifications of sucralose entering sensitive marine ecosystems are unclear." The study authors also state that sucralose "… does not appear to pose a direct health risk for humans or other life forms on short timescales…" and suggest additional research was needed to assess the longer term impact of sucralose.

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Additional Information:

The following information is from Virtual Chembook published online by Elmhurst College (Source: http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/549sucralose.html).

  • Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar and does not metabolize to produce energy, thus it does not contain calories.
  • It is the only low calorie sweetener that is made from sugar, which has been changed so passes through the body unchanged and unmetabolized.
  • Substituting for three alcohol groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms creates sucralose.
  • It is heat stable and can be used in cooking and baking or anywhere one would use sugar without losing its sweetness.
  • Sucralose is currently used in more than 30 countries and the FDA approved it in 1998 as a table top sweetener.
  • Chlorine is something we consume every day in our water and other foods we eat, it is safe in this formulation. As a result, sucralose does not require any warning labels.

The following information is from the website HowStuffWorks (Source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/artificial-sweetener8.htm/printable). 

  • Although the manufacturers' Web sites and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that artificial sweeteners are perfectly safe, some consumer groups and physicians disagree.
  • Splenda®, the newest sweetener, has been sued by the sugar industry for trying to make people think it is more natural than it really is.
  • In a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), 57 percent of people thought Splenda was a natural product, not an artificial sweetener [ref].
  • Sucralose (Splenda), for example, is used in baked goods because it can withstand heat.
  • You can find artificial sweeteners in liquid and chewable medications (particularly children's medications), throat lozenges, cough drops, chewable vitamins, toothpaste, mouthwash, and anything else that could benefit from a little sweetness but shouldn't use sugar.
  • To create sucralose, three of the hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) groups in a sugar molecule are replaced with three chlorine (Cl) atoms. At that point it is no longer sugar -- it is an artificial sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than sugar.
  • The chlorine that prevents it from being absorbed by the body also gives it the ability to withstand enough heat to be used in baking.
  • It was approved by the FDA for use in foods and beverages in 1998.
  • Sucralose, marketed as Splenda®, is the fastest growing artificial sweetener on the market. It can be found in everything from frozen deserts, to sodas, to cookies, gum, and candies. Sucralose is sold in bulk for baking and is available in a small yellow packet for sweetening your coffee or tea.
  • Because of their tag line, "Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar," many people believe that Splenda is a natural sweetener and therefore healthier, which isn't the case. Because there have been no long-term studies, no one really knows if sucralose is healthier then other artificial sweeteners.

The following information is from the Center For Science In The Public Interest (Source: http://www.cspinet.org/new/200502141.html).

  • In April of 2005, the CSPI commissioned a national Internet survey that included 426 people who had used Splenda. Only 57 percent of Splenda users correctly believed that Splenda was an artificial sweetener. 47 percent of Splenda users incorrectly believed it was a natural product. Only 8 percent of the respondents correctly believed that it was made from sugar and chlorine. The sucralose in Splenda is, in fact, a synthetic chemical that contains chlorine, something that no natural sugar contains.
  • "Made from sugar," certainly sounds better than, say, "made from chlorinated hydrocarbons," or "made in a laboratory," or "fresh from the factory." Splenda's artificiality may present a marketing challenge, but that's not an excuse to confuse consumers and lead them to believe that Splenda is natural or in any way related to sugar. I hope that McNeil starts marketing Splenda honestly. (Statement from CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson)

The following information is from an NBCNews.com article entitled, "Splenda settles lawsuit over ‘sugar' claim" (Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18618557/ns/business-us_business/t/splenda-settles-lawsuit-over-sugar-claim/#.UC0Oc0SYW2w).

  • In 2007, the maker of Splenda settled a lawsuit over its disputed advertising slogan - "Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar"
  • Merisant Co., which makes rival Equal, accused the makers of Splenda of confusing consumers into thinking its product was healthier and more natural than other artificial sweeteners. Splenda's marketer, McNeil Nutritionals, countered that it simply has a better product backed by superior advertising.
  • The details of the settlement are confidential and both have agreed to make no additional comment on the terms of the agreement.
  • Splenda is used in more than 4,000 food and drink products and is included in recipes at numerous chain restaurants.
  • It had 60 percent of the consumer artificial sweetener market last year (2006), according to the research firm Information Resources Inc. 

The following information was obtained from FAQs published on Splenda's website (Source: http://www.splenda.com/faq/no-calorie-sweetener#4).

  • Sucralose (or SPLENDA® Brand Sweetener), the high intensity sweetener used in all SPLENDA® Products is not natural. It is a no calorie sweetener that is made from a process that starts with sugar. Although sucralose has a structure like sugar's and a sugar-like taste, it is not natural. The advertising and packaging for SPLENDA® Products do not represent the product as "natural."
  • SPLENDA® Brand Sweetener has had more than 20 years of research and over 110 scientific studies.1,8-10 Its safety is well documented and the Food and Drug Administration, along with regulatory, health, and food safety authorities from around the world, have concluded that it is safe. It has been used throughout the world by millions of people since 1991, and there are no warning labels on the products to exclude anyone from enjoying SPLENDA® Brand Sweetener. Sucralose is approved for use in over 80 countries and is currently used in more than 4000 products worldwide.
  • The FDA approved sucralose in 1998 for use in 15 food and beverage categories following a rigorous review process. Sixteen months later, the FDA extended its approval of sucralose to use as a general-purpose sweetener, which means that sucralose is permitted for use in foods, beverages, dietary supplements, medical foods and drugs.
  • After it is ingested, most (about 85%) is not absorbed and passes through the body unchanged in the stool. Of the small amount that is absorbed, most leaves the body unchanged in the urine within 24 hours.
  • Consumers can be assured that sucralose is safe for the environment. A comprehensive range of scientific studies on sucralose has been conducted to investigate the potential impact on the environment. All studies on sucralose have been conducted to internationally agreed protocols validated for regulatory purposes. All regulatory studies were conducted in laboratories conforming to good laboratory practices (GLP). Specific studies clearly demonstrate that sucralose has no adverse effect on fish, invertebrates (e.g., water flea), algae or higher plants. These studies showed no effects at concentrations of sucralose that were many times greater than would be found in the environment.
  • More recently, studies have been conducted with fish, freshwater and marine invertebrates and algae, which confirm that sucralose does not build up in the food chain and is environmentally safe. Every regulatory authority who has reviewed the environmental data on sucralose has arrived at the same conclusion: Sucralose has no adverse effect on the environment. 

The following information is Marine Chemistry (November 2009) in an article entitled, "Occurrence of the artificial sweetener sucralose in coastal and marine waters of the United States" (Source: http://journals2.scholarsportal.info/details.xqy?uri=/03044203/v116i1-4/13_ootassmwotus.xml).

  • Large volume water samples were collected and pre-concentrated using solid phase extraction followed by GC/MS analysis.
  • The greatest abundance was found in waste water treatment plant output.
  • Sucralose was found in the Gulf Stream and Northern/Middle Florida Keyes.
  • The research concludes that sucralose persists and distributes across aquatic matrices and incorporates into major ocean currents (like the Gulf Stream) allowing for potential global distribution.
  • Sucralose is sold under the trade name Splenda.
  • Sucralose is a chlorinated disaccharide originating from sucrose.
  • Sucralose is considered non-toxic to humans.
  • Samples were taken from municipal waste water treatment plant output on the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, NC, a series of stations along the river, a mid-shelf location at the mouth of the river and Gulf Stream, stations from coastal Louisiana and the Florida Keys.