Chemical in Artificial Sweetener May Damage DNA

Results of a new study on sucralose-6-acetate — a compound that forms during the manufacture and digestion of sucralose — have scientists questioning the safety of the commonly used artificial sweetener.

Sucralose is an artificial sweetener about 320 to 1,000 times sweeter than sugar with zero calories. It's used in a wide range of food products, including diet drinks, chewing gum, sugar-free jams, coffee syrups, and sauces.

Despite its popularity among people who want to maintain or lose weight, the WHO recently warned consumers that artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, are ineffective for controlling weight and may actually increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Previous research on rodents found that several fat-soluble compounds are formed in the digestive system after ingestion of sucralose. One of those compounds is sucralose-6-acetate.

Now, new research by the same scientific team found that sucralose-6-acetate may be genotoxic and negatively impact DNA. They also found the compound may contribute to leaky gut and affect gene expression in gut tissues.

The scientists conducted lab experiments exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate. They also conducted lab tests that exposed human gut tissues to the compound and examined gut cell genetic activity.

The team observed that the DNA of cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate showed breaks, which indicates the compound is genotoxic.

They also found that when they exposed tissues that line the intestine to sucralose-6-acetate and sucralose, both impaired intestinal barrier integrity. In addition, the compound significantly increased the expression of genes in the gut associated with oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer.

In a news release, corresponding author Susan Schiffman, an adjunct professor in the joint department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, "When we exposed sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate to gut epithelial tissues – the tissue that lines your gut wall – we found that both chemicals cause 'leaky gut.' Basically, they make the wall of the gut more permeable. The chemicals damage the 'tight junctions,' or interfaces, where cells in the gut wall connect to each other."

Moreover, sucralose-6-acetate also blocked two enzymes that play a role in detoxification and cellular metabolism, which the study authors say might lead to adverse toxicological exposures.

And this has the scientists concerned because they also identified trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in sucralose found on store shelves.

"To put this in context, the European Food Safety Authority has a threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances of 0.15 micrograms per person per day," Schiffman explains. "Our work suggests that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceed that threshold. And that's not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose."

Schiffman says these findings raise several concerns about the potential health effects of sucralose and its metabolites.

"It's time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose, because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks," Schiffman says. "If nothing else, I encourage people to avoid products containing sucralose. It's something you should not be eating."

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