Let’s Talk Sweetener Science, Pseudoscience, and the Sweetest Holiday of the Year.

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It’s time for my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. It’s Christmas without the commercialism. And for people who are a little too in love with kitchen gadgets like me, this is the Super Bowl of holidays. I get to play with every gadget in my kitchen, dirty every pot, pie plate, blender, and processor I have. This is possibly my favorite two days of the year (yes, two, minimum) of geeking out with far too many festive gourds and variations on pumpkin spice. Side note, I brine every year and this year I’m trying spatchcocking– science approved for a juicy, evenly cooked turkey. And this year I moved into a house with a lemon tree, so a few of my recipes will have very fresh lemons (and I’ve finally perfected my ginger lemonade recipe).

A lot of the cooking the next few days has recipes that I’ve made for years that are sweetened with brown sugar, molasses, or even juice. If I want to experiment with a lower sugar version of those recipes, I’ll save that for another time of the year. But for Thanksgiving? At least for me, it’s a day of the year to enjoy every beloved family recipe with every last drop of brine, salt, butter, sugar, and flavor as our Lord and savior, Alton Brown, intended it. 

Even if I’m using more of the granulated sugar this week, we still have some myths to debunk about low calorie sweeteners. Some of the specific points that came up regarding Splenda when I first wrote that I was working with them to debunk common myths. Some people commented that they relied on Splenda as a safe low calorie sweetener to use for them and their family members with diabetes (so while I’m planning to prepare more indulgent versions of my favorites on Thanksgiving, low calorie sweeteners allows some people to enjoy sweetened treats that they might normally plan to skip out on due to medical reasons). A few said they utilized low calorie sweeteners when they were cutting calories and successfully lost weight. All wonderful things, backed up by science.

In that first blog post about Splenda, I asked people what questions they had about the low calorie sweetener; what they had heard about it and what things they suspected may be misconceptions. They’d done lab tests on that stuff somehow, right?

Long before Splenda approached me about partnering, I’d already written and spoken about low calorie sweeteners regularly, so I was pretty familiar with the rumors floating around. I wanted to know what the biggest concerns were, and there were questions all over the spectrum but the lion’s share stacked up neatly. In no particular order starting with C for Cancer:

  1. Does Splenda cause cancer?

Despite what you might read in some places on the internet, every substance that enters the food supply goes through a litany of tests. This includes testing for:

  • Short-term tests for genetic toxicity
  • Metabolism and pharmacokinetic studies
  • Short-term toxicity tests in rodents
  • Sub-chronic toxicity tests with rodents (usually 90 days in duration)
  • Sub-chronic toxicity tests with non-rodents (usually 90 days in duration)
  • Reproduction studies with a teratology phase to determine the potential of the additive to induce reproductive toxic effects or adversely affect any of the reproductive organs or reproductive systems of an animal, or produce birth defects of any type
  • One-year toxicity tests with non-rodents
  • Chronic (lifetime duration, i.e., 24 months, typically) toxicity and carcinogenicity studies with rodents

There are even specific testing guidelines for low calorie sweeteners. If your test tube full of calorie-free sugariness doesn’t pass every single one of these tests, guess what? Back to the lab again.

But even knowing that, every once in awhile a clickbait headline comes out saying “this sweetener is linked to your dog running away, your newly forming wrinkles (they’re a welcome present to your mid-30s), and ALL OF THE CANCER.” Hmm.

Looking at two reviews papers of Splenda’s safety, a critical examination into the safety evaluations show that sucralose is safe with no evidence of carcinogenicity. But in science, we look at all the evidence even if it’s troubling, contradictory, or even if it might just be an outlier due to a poorly run experiment. So when a paper out of the Ramazzini institute claimed that there was an increased risk of cancer in mice when they were administered sucralose, it raised a few alarm bells.

However, as happens with many alarmist studies, the study was widely panned in the scientific community as it doesn’t pass regulatory standards for several reasons. Even at the lowest intake, the mice were fed far more Splenda than a human would consume in a day, and they were fed it continually for life (you can stop worrying about the amount that I’m sure you’re all having, six bags a day, right? That’s just me? This explains… things.). Furthermore, there was not a dose-response relationship between sucralose intake and cancer diagnosis. Oddly, for some reason the increase in cancer rates affected male mice much more than female mice, and no viable cause was proposed for this. It’s also important to note that the mice fed the highest amount of sucralose and the mice in the control group had an equal incidence of cancer, which should call for repeatability testing. And lastly, there was a comprehensive database available to these scientists demonstrating that all available data showed no previous carcinogenic effects.

The American Cancer Society even stated quite plainly:

“There is no proof that these sweeteners, at the levels consumed in human diets, cause cancer. Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are a few of the non-nutritive sweeteners approved for use by the FDA. Current evidence does not show a link between these compounds and increased cancer risk.”

It’s almost exactly like they want you to not get cancer and Splenda… doesn’t cause cancer. Fancy.

Who do you trust, the outlier with zero replicable results or, quite literally, hundreds of studies evaluated by regulatory bodies demonstrating that sucralose is safe?

2. Does Splenda cause diabetes? Is it safe for diabetics?

For some reason, if it tastes sweet, people think it causes some form of diabetes. Whether it’s sugar or low calorie sweeteners, there is a common thread that people think they lead directly to a lifetime of syringes and insulin bottles. So let’s unpack that a bit.

There are several types of diabetes, but let’s focus on the most well known and most common ones. Type 1, commonly known as juvenile diabetes, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks your pancreas, and it subsequently loses its ability to produce sufficient insulin. With Type 2 diabetes, otherwise known as adult-onset diabetes, your body ceases to produce insulin in an efficient enough manner to keep up with your body’s needs to regulate blood sugar. There are several factors that contribute to developing Type 2 diabetes, including weight, genetics, and lifestyle.

The internet occasionally tells tales that low calorie sweeteners cause type 2 diabetes because, of course, if sugar causes it (which it doesn’t), then so does the low calorie stuff. The sweet taste hits your taste buds, and that kicks a ball that rolls down a ramp causing a pulley to violently tug at a shakeweight, and then a mouse scratches at your pancreas until it screams into the night “I’m Spartacus!” Or that it needs insulin or something. I read it on the internet so it’s true.

So is there a connection? Nope. There is no preventing Type 1 diabetes, and Type 2 prevention and management is mainly about maintaining a long term balanced and calorie appropriate diet. The American Diabetic Association also recommends non-nutritive sweeteners as a safe way for diabetics to enjoy sweet tastes without an impact on blood sugar.

“For people who are accustomed to sugar-sweetened products, non-nutritive sweeteners have the potential to reduce overall calorie and carbohydrate intake and may be preferred to sugar when consumed in moderation. Regulatory agencies set acceptable daily intake levels for each non-nutritive sweetener, defined as the amount that can be safely consumed over a person’s lifetime.”

So sucralose doesn’t cause diabetes… but weight gain can, and there are rumors that Splenda can cause weight gain.

Shit, we need to debunk one more thing, don’t we?

3. Does Splenda cause weight gain?

I drank low calorie sweetened drinks all through my 90lb weight loss, so it didn’t seem to affect me. But since anecdotes aren’t data (not even when it supports my side of the argument), let’s look at some real data.

The logic on this line of thought is quite similar to the logic on diabetes. Your body thinks it’s tasting something sweet, so it reacts like it’s ingested something sweet and grabs a hold of any calorie it’s seen in the last millenia like a calorie hoarder. Because your body gets… confused.

But if anything, when used appropriately, it can help cut calories and lead to weight loss. According to a meta-analysis from the American Diabetic Association of nutritional strategies to manage diabetes, they can cut calories when used judiciously:

Use of nonnutritive sweeteners (NNSs) has the potential to reduce overall calorie and carbohydrate intake if substituted for caloric sweeteners without compensation by intake of additional calories from other food sources.

There’s always a question about any biochemical mischief that Splenda might be up to. “But do they make you crave sweets because it triggers an insulin response by tasting something sweet?” Something something brain kicks the ball and the mousetrap again? But let’s think about that- if you’re consuming something sweetened with Splenda, odds are that you were already craving a sweet flavor. 

And as for that alleged biochemical mischief, you’ve been here before. You knew I had a study for that, right?

(I have three).

Not only did swishing a solution of non-nutritive sweetener not cause an insulin response, but a group of diabetics were also found to have no measurable insulin response to ingesting a solution sweetened with low calorie sweetener. Furthermore, a meta-analysis found that the effects of consuming low calorie sweetened beverages on body weight was similar to the consumption of water.

It turns out, the stuff just has the property of tasting really sweet.

So do I just accept at face value that this stuff isn’t going to goddamn kill me?!

I write everything I do fully expecting that people will fact check me. So please, click any and every link posted here to make sure I’ve faithfully represented data. Read everything you can. Bring me things that you have questions about because I want this to be a dialogue.

Even if your question is just “how the hell did spatchcocking your turkey work out,” I’ll be here with some answers.

Am I telling you to go out and eat all the Splenda? No, because clearly I have a lot of other things on my table too. But I am telling you that I enjoy it and it’s safe if you do like the taste. Low calorie sweeteners all have really different chemical structures, but they share a property of just tasting sweet. They do, however, go through the same battery of tests and all have an extensive safety record. If you like the taste and you’re looking to reduce added sugar, you can eat without worrying. Enjoy your holiday, whatever you’re cooking. I’ll be holed up in my kitchen covered in sugar, turkey entrails, and the perennial scent of regret at my inability to better plan my time better. I’ll occasionally take a break to answer a few questions with some of my fresh ginger lemonade, sweetened with Splenda.

 

-SciBabe

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