I’ve put a lot of stuff in my body in my life (your mind may be in the gutter, but deep breaths). But of all that stuff, not many of those things have caused as much controversy as one thing that has just sweetens up my morning coffee a bit. Even with hundreds of scientific studies, we see a lot of bullshit headlines about it.
I’ve spent some time debunking myths about the products that low calorie sweeteners are in, and specifically that they’re not killing you, causing cancer, or even making you gain weight. The science keeps supporting that statement even when the clickbait websites aren’t.
I lost about 90lbs a few years ago and I made a lot of changes to do that (admittedly, I gained back about 20lbs of that- more carrots, less Cheezies from all the business trips to Canada should help). Those changes mainly involved cutting calories and becoming more active. I did experiment on my own diet and tried cutting low calorie sweeteners to see if there were any effects to my health, weight, or cravings. The only change was that I missed my sweet iced coffee. The amount of calories in a daily iced coffee I would have needed for how sweet I like my coffee? 60 (four raw sugar packets). For the record, I now take mine with three Splenda and one raw sugar – just 15 calories, if it’s a day when I skip the cream (I promise, I fix it myself, I’m not that much of a pain to the baristas). Small changes add up and by not depriving myself of sweet, it helped me stick to other changes.
But that’s an anecdote, and in science, we talk data. Repeatable, reputable data. The type of data that’s been shown to be reliable over the long haul, not data from one study out of a lab that nobody’s heard of. Speaking of that type of data…
Have you heard that sucralose, the sweetening ingredient in Splenda, causes… cancer? Weight gain? Sweet cravings? Effects on blood glucose? Your gut microbiome to launch its own civilization with a portal gun to the multiverse? This is not an episode of Rick and Morty, and your microbiome is not quite that easily blasted apart.
To any of you who have been around here for a while, what’s the first rule of bullshit detection?
Okay, other than ‘if you can smell it on your shoe, get a towel’?
My rule is: If you have to ask, it’s probably bullshit.
Doesn’t it just smell like bullshit that low calorie sweeteners all seem to keep being blamed for the same cluster of problems, and they’re not chemically similar at all? There’s no good reason to suspect they’re causing the same issues solely based on this shared perceived property of making iced coffee taste like a butterfly punching you in the tongue… lovingly.
No one substance – element, plant extract, pharmaceutical, or otherwise – fixes every ailment, so why would we think that any one substance that’s passed through 100 scientific studies causes such a long laundry list of ailments? It’s suspicion, fear, and susceptibility to the constant message that low calorie sweeteners are intrinsically bad. So why do we keep seeing scary research in the media?
In a lot of cases, individual studies driving the media headlines are flawed or misinterpreted. Variables aren’t fully disambiguated in large scale dietary studies, so when you see “sucralose is linked to” something awful when it’s merely one factor in a large scale diet, it’s a sign that all factors in a diet weren’t equally considered. There are many things that can make a study lack validity (note: it doesn’t mean the researchers were necessarily ill intentioned, it means in some cases that their insights need more thorough research). Sometimes you’ll see studies that aren’t placebo controlled. Occasionally the culprit of a bad study is p-hacking, which is loosely defined as when a scientist tortures the data until it tells them whatever they want to hear. Other times the “science” that low calorie sweeteners cause sugar cravings? Just completely bogus. Examine.com, an independent and unbiased encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition, pored over all the data and the simple act of tasting a solution of low calorie sweetened liquid did not spike blood sugar or increase food cravings. A study of all low calorie sweeteners compared to sugar showed a reduction in calories and weight.
Fear sells and even shitty writers can make a career out of just saying “chemicals scare me” over and over again if they have nice enough hair.
But this is the hardest part of science communications for the consumer. If you’re not a trained scientist, how exactly can you tell if a study or an article is accurate?
So let’s talk about it. I’ve partnered with Splenda to try to combat some of the more pervasive myths about low calorie sweeteners like sucralose that I see every day on social media. And I see them on my timeline or in my inbox every day. Are they causing weight gain? Are they causing stomach pains?
Are they safe?
Before every single shill accusation shows up, yes, let’s just get this out of the way. Indeed, I’m working with Splenda and these are all things I never would have said otherwise. I’m kicking my heels up on a desk made of fossilized unicorns wearing a coat made of Dalmatians, sipping a martini made from the tears of my enemies. Specifically Gwyneth Paltrow…. Wait, we collected that fluid from a jade egg, you say? Goddamnit.
…Or more accurately I really like Splenda because it’s safe for everyone, it bakes well (which is important for someone like me who loves to bake), and if this is something that you like the taste of in your diet, you deserve to understand why the science says it’s safe. Over the coming months, I want to address all the questions and concerns that people have had about Splenda and low calorie sweeteners in general. It’s a field where chemiphobia has run rampant, leading to incorrect assumptions about diets, calories, and health.
So have you heard some crazy things on the internet about Splenda? Comment. Email. Ask, but don’t let it go unchecked without asking, and I will do my damndest to answer with evidence. I’m not going to find any random paper to support my positions. I’ll hunt for quality evidence and papers that come from the most reputable resources possible. I wouldn’t expect you to trust your health to anything less.
You deserve answers. And a few dirty jokes.
The blog post is in partnership with SPLENDA® Brand Sweeteners. Opinions are my own.