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As you peruse the bakery aisle or order your morning coffee, you might notice an option that has become ubiquitous: sugar-free. Behind many of these choices is sucralose, a sweetener that quietly permeates our food landscape. Its presence, often unnoticed, underscores a significant shift toward health-conscious dietary choices without sacrificing the pleasure of sweetness.

Sucralose is a no-calorie sweetener with an intense flavor about 600 times sweeter than sugar. Because of this, only small amounts are needed to match the sweetness of sugar. The FDA approved sucralose as a food additive in 1998 and as a general-purpose sweetener in 1999. Sucralose is exceptionally stable and stays sweet under various conditions, making it a practical option for frozen foods and those baked at high temperatures or that require sterilization. This artificial sweetener is found in many common and widely available products, including beverages, baked goods, ice cream, and chewing gum. The FDA reviewed more than 110 studies when determining the safety of sucralose, but there are still some things to consider before making it a regular part of your diet.

The discovery and development of sucralose

Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and is made from chemically altering sucrose, or what we know as table sugar, a natural substance found in nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Sucralose has been marketed to the public as Splenda since 1999. Today, it is one of the most popular artificial sweeteners in the United States.

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Chemical structure and properties

Both sucrose (a natural sugar) and sucralose are disacccharides, which means they have glucose- and fructose-like parts.

Turning sucrose into sucralose is done by chlorinating sucrose, specifically replacing three hydroxyl groups with chlorine atoms, two on the fructose-like ring and one on the glucose-like ring. Because of these chemical changes, sugar and sucralose differ in other properties. While sucrose is broken down into glucose and fructose and absorbed into the body, about 90 percent of sucralose passes through the body unabsorbed.

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The caloric content and sweetness comparison

While sucralose is around 600 times sweeter than sugar, it doesn't contain any calories, which is one of the factors that makes it such a popular sugar substitute. The changes in chemical structure that occur when sucralose is derived from sugar cause it to pass through the gut without being metabolized, meaning the body does not absorb calories from this artificial sweetener.

Unwrapping Sucralose's Sweet Benefits and Bitter Truths

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Benefits of using sucralose

There may be many benefits of using sucralose as a sugar substitute. In the short term, foods and beverages made with sucralose are safe alternatives to food with added sugar for people with diabetes and can help them satisfy their cravings for something sweet while allowing them to manage their carbohydrate intake. Some studies also show that artificial sweeteners like sucralose can help with weight loss and management.

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Metabolic health concerns

Results of studies looking at the long-term effects of sucralose on diabetes and insulin resistance are mixed. Some studies indicated that sucralose consumption could stimulate the release of GLP-1, a hormone involved in glycemic regulation, and reduce blood sugar levels. Some research also suggested that sucralose could improve LDL cholesterol and enhance glucose tolerance. However, other research indicates that sucralose can have detrimental metabolic effects, like impairing insulin sensitivity and altering the gut microbiome. One study done on mice suggested that sucralose can have a positive impact on insulin secretion in the short term but showed that, over a period of two weeks, it impaired insulin insensitivity and elevated glucose levels.

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Sucralose and the gut microbiome

Research shows that long-term use of sucralose can affect the gut microbiome, which may be the underlying cause of its effects on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. Studies show that sucralose seems to affect a specific type of bacteria called Firmicutes, which plays a central role in how the body metabolizes glucose and insulin. The effects of sucralose on the gut microbiome are still being debated, and more research is needed.

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Potential allergic reactions and sensitivities

There is minimal research about sucralose allergies, although there are anecdotal reports of people experiencing hives, breathing difficulties, and itching from a suspected allergy. Although the body does not absorb sucralose, research shows that long-term consumption may affect the gut microbiome, which can lead to a number of health issues, including food intolerances.

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Effects on dental health

Publish findings show that sucralose does not cause dental caries, but sucralose-based powdered sweeteners generally contain bulking agents in the form of carbohydrates, which may. That said, even with these bulking agents, sucralose-based sweeteners are less likely to cause dental health problems than sugar.

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Debates over cancer risk

While initial studies of sucralose deemed it safe and determined it did not cause cancer when ingested at the recommended levels, recent research is calling these results into question. One study found that sucralose may damage the lining of the gut and alter cellular DNA, causing inflammation and oxidative stress, which may lead to cancer. This study was in vitro, meaning it was done using human cells in a lab. Additional controlled studies in humans are needed to determine if changes to the current recommendations for the use of sucralose are required.

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Regulatory and safety evaluations

In addition to the FDA's approval for use as a food additive, the European Food Safety Authority, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, Health Canada, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare have also confirmed its safety.

However, in 2023, the World Health Organization advised against using sucralose for weight management as the available evidence suggests that it does not reduce body fat for adults or children in the long-term and may increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and mortality.

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Sucralose in cooking and baking

Sucralose is stable when heated, making it a suitable sugar substitute, and many recipes may recommend substituting it one-to-one for sugar. Sucralose can absorb more liquid than standard table sugar, so you may need to add more liquid to the recipe if your batter or dough does not have the right consistency or your baked goods are coming out too dry.

Some recent research suggests that sucralose can degrade when exposed to high temperatures, which may mean that it is not a safe as the original studies in the 1990s concluded, but more research is needed to determine whether it poses a health risk when used in this way.

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Comparative analysis with other sweeteners

The FDA has approved one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia, and five artificial sweeteners: acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. How the body responds to these sweeteners is complex and, in some ways, not completely understood. Any of these sugar substitutes can change the way we taste food or how much we crave sweets, and frequent use of them may make other foods, like fruits and vegetables, less appealing. Research has also found that some sugar substitutes can be addicting.

While research has generally found these sweeteners to be safe, the studies leading up to FDA approval in the 1990s tested small amounts of these chemicals used over a short period, so we really do not understand the effects of large quantities used over many years. That said, natural sugar has its own risks, including rapidly increasing blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing triglycerides, and elevating the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and chronic illnesses.

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Recommendations for consumption

The FDA suggests safe levels of all approved artificial sweeteners; for sucralose or Splenda, the high limit of the acceptable daily intake is 23 packets. With two teaspoons in a packet, this translates to 46 teaspoons, which is about 15 tablespoons or just shy of a cup of Splenda per day.

Infographic from the FDA on safe levels of Sweetners

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Artificial sweeteners and informed choices

The information about sucralose and other artificial sweeteners can sometimes be confusing and even contradictory. The FDA and other government health and safety departments worldwide agree that sucralose is safe when used occasionally and in moderation. Research into its long-term effects on health is ongoing, and while some studies found that it may have some negative impact, more research is needed to determine whether the guidelines for consumption need to change.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.