If you've added the artificial sweetener sucralose (brand name Splenda) to your diet because you think it's a healthy alternative to sugar, you're being dangerously misled. Research from the Ramazzini Institute has linked the popular sugar alternative to cancer, specifically leukemia.
The findings were first presented at a London cancer conference in 2012 and prompted The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to downgrade Splenda from its "safe" category to one of "caution."
Now that the study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, CSPI has again downgraded Splenda, this time from "caution" to "avoid."
Splenda May Increase Risk of Cancer in Mice
The researchers fed mice Splenda beginning prenatally and continuing for their entire lifespan. The mice were fed varying concentrations of the artificial sweetener: 0 ppm (parts per million), 500 ppm, 2,000 ppm, 8,000 ppm or 16,000 ppm.
A significant increase in cancerous tumors was seen among male mice, and the risk increased along with the dose. The risk of leukemia in male mice also significantly increased, especially at Splenda doses of 2,000 to 16,000 ppm.According to the study:
CSPI explained that the only other long-term feeding studies conducted on Splenda were conducted by its manufacturer. The new study, they said:
After more than a decade, CSPI has finally gotten it right about Splenda in recommending that consumers avoid it. For the record, however, CSPI is generally an organization whose guidelines need to be taken with a grain of salt.
For instance, while recommending that people avoid artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame and saccharin, they still consider drinking diet soda to be safer than drinking regular soda.
Artificial Sweeteners Confuse Your Metabolism
When you eat something sweet, your brain releases dopamine, which activates your brain's reward center. The appetite-regulating hormone leptin is also released, which eventually informs your brain that you are "full" once a certain amount of calories have been ingested.
However, when you consume something that tastes sweet but contain any calories, like an artificial sweetener, your brain's pleasure pathway still gets activated by the sweet taste. However, there's nothing to activate it since the calories never arrive.
Artificial sweeteners basically trick your body into thinking that it's going to receive sugar (calories), but when the sugar doesn't come your body continues to signal that it needs more, which results in carb cravings.
Contrary to industry claims, research over the last 30 years — including several large-scale prospective cohort studies — has shown that artificial sweeteners stimulate appetite, increase cravings for carbs, and produce a variety of metabolic dysfunctions that promote fat storage and weight gain — often to the researchers' great surprise.
For instance, a 2010 review published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine revealed the correlation between increased usage of artificial sweeteners in food and drinks and the corresponding rise in obesity. More than 11,650 children aged 9 to 14 were included in this study. Each daily serving of diet beverage was associated with a body mass index (BMI) increase of 0.16 kg/m2.
You can see the trends for yourself in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine graphic below, which clearly refutes the beverage industry's claims that artificially sweetened diet soda aids weight loss.
Are There Safer Artificial Sweeteners?
I recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners of any kind, as each is linked with its own risks. Aspartame is perhaps the most dangerous of the bunch. At least it's one of the most widely used and has the most reports of adverse effects. There are also hundreds of scientific studies demonstrating its harmful effects.
Sugar alcohols are another option on the market. They can be identified by the commonality of "ol" at the end of their name, such as xylitol glucitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol, and lactitol. They're not as sweet as sugar, and they do contain fewer calories, but they're not calorie-free. So don't get confused by the "sugar-free" label on foods containing these sweeteners.
One reason that sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than sugar is because they're not completely absorbed into your body. Because of this, eating too many foods containing sugar alcohols can lead to abdominal gas and diarrhea. It's also worth noting that maltitol, a commonly used sugar alcohol, spikes blood sugar almost as much as a starchy new potato.
Xylitol, in comparison, does not have a great effect on your blood sugar, so from that perspective it may be a better choice. In moderation, some sugar alcohols can be a better choice than artificial sweeteners like Splenda and aspartame. Of the various sugar alcohols, xylitol is one of the best. When it is pure, the potential side effects are minimal, and it actually comes with some benefits such as fighting tooth decay.
All in all, I would say that xylitol is reasonably safe, and potentially even a mildly beneficial sweetener. As a side note, xylitol is toxic to dogs and some other animals, so be sure to keep it out of reach of your family pets.)
That being said, two of the best natural sugar substitutes are from the plant kingdom: Stevia and Luo Han Guo (also spelled Luo Han Kuo). Stevia, a highly sweet herb derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant, is sold as a supplement. It's completely safe in its natural form and can be used to sweeten most dishes and drinks.
Luo Han Kuo is similar to Stevia, but it's a bit more expensive and harder to find. In China, the Luo Han fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and it's about 200 times sweeter than sugar.