Saturday, June 17, 2006

Splenda is Scary Stuff

Splenda, which comes in those little yellow packages that now reside alongside those red and blue satchels of sugar substitutes at restaurants, has got its fair share of press over the years. There's plenty of opinions on whether this "made from sugar" sugar substitute is safe to eat or not. Some have compared the structure of Splenda (the trade name of sucralose) to DDT, which others compare it to sodium chloride (table salt). You can buy books on how this stuff will kill you, or read about how it was discovered serendipitously by some chemists trying to make better insecticides.

Here's some homework for you: If you know a chemist (preferably an organic chemist, but anyone with a semester or two or organic chemistry will do), show them the structure of sucralose. Ask them if they would eat it. If they don't recognize it as Splenda immediately, I bet they'll give you a disgusted look and say you're crazy. Then tell them what it is. If they are pouring those yellow packages into their lattes, they'll stop. Every single chemist I've run this experiment on has the same reaction: "that stuff can't be good for you." Try it yourself, let me know what responses you get.

Explaining why this molecule is likely not good for you can be a bit complicated, but I'll give it a go. It's those chlorine (Cl) atoms that are so troublesome. First off, the structural comparisons mentioned above are terrible chemical metaphors. There is nothing (aside from it being the same element) at all in common between sucralose and table salt, as FDA Chemist George Pauli would like you to believe. DDT is slightly closer in chemical space to sucralose, but it's still pretty different, and its just irresponsible to try to scare people by making that comparison.

Understanding how those might react in the human body is way beyond the scope of this post, but let me make a much more realistic chemical analogy for you. The potentially harmful portion of Splenda is most like methyl chloride (CH3–Cl). Not in that sucralose is a colorless flammable gas (you knew that), but that methyl chloride and sucralose are both good candidates for substitution reactions. This can lead to the modification of all sorts of molecules in your body, which is hardly ever a good thing.

The short of it is that long-term studies of the effects of eating this miracle sugar have not been done.
Splenda's FAQs might suggest otherwise, but I'm skeptical. If the FDA thinks this is chemically similar to NaCl, then we've got some pretty big problems on our hands. Not only does the FDA ultimately decide what is safe for us to eat, but most people don't know enough chemistry to even think twice about their decisions. That's a failure of our schools and our government.


Anonymous Paula said...

I stumbled over your blog in the july issue of Chemical Education. I like your collectetion of topics.

4:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just the single electrophile that scares me, but the two on one molecule, just right for cross-linking DNA, which, as someone has put it, would be bad. Think phosgene, oxalyl chloride, di-bromoethane, etc.

1:42 PM  
Blogger harmonious1 said...

I realize that you have probably dumbed this all down so that lay persons can understand it, but I am still having a hard time. (also with what anonymous said)I'm an artist, not a chemist. I did get that you don't think splenda is safe to use, but I'm a little foggy on how it harms one. Thanks for the effort though. At least you give reasons, most of the time people just say NO NO ITS BAD, and don't even try to explain why.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I switched to a lower carb diet for several months. After several months of intestinal pain and cramping, I realized the cause was Splenda. I stopped using it altogether and the side effects disappeared within a day or two. Splenda is NOT safe and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Either lower your sugar intake or switch to a natural sugar substitute like stevia.

5:22 PM  
Blogger RAY said...

When a very smart friend told my son drinking a Diet Coke that Dr. Mercola said that Splenda had the same structure as DDT and shouldn't he consider drinking Diet Coke given the comparison. I sat back wondering where did my friend get this concept and how could such a smart person be so adamant about such a statement to bring it up in a group meeting.

Now, I am a chemical engineer--not a great chemical engineer, but smart enough to have graduated :))), wise enough not to make radical statements (even though I have made my share of radical statements) and concerned enough with the delusion of this world to check the validity of these pronouncements by others.

Checking out this statement about DDT and Splenda, I can see on the surface that DDT and Splenda indeed have two rings with Chlorine attachments at various site on the structure as part of the chemical structures. However, even with my limited chemistry knowledge, I can see that DDT has Benzene rings and Splenda has sugar rings. DDT has unsaturated bonds that can react with other chemicals and Splenda has saturated bonds which makes those bonds less likely to react with other chemicals. Also given the fact that Chlorine likes to be bonded with something, I wonder if Splenda losing a Chlorine would have much effect since Chlorine would want to bond with something else immediately---maybe even become part of the salt solution in the body. I guess that I would like to have a pesticide chemist and sugar chemist get into the details of the chemistry more to confirm my rudimentary thoughts on the chemistry. Also, just looking at a chemical structure with information is not a very good indication of benefit. It I looked at a salt structure or Aspirin, I might have the same perspective as Splenda--chemistry is not perspection unfortunately--especially when you are taking it for a grade in college:)).

As far as Splenda being consider for a replacement for DDT, I could see that consideration happening given the fact that pharmaceutical companies look at similarly structured chemicals in the hope of obtaining the same drug effect with less side effects. Obviously, Splenda was one of a number of candidates reviewed to replace DDT with less side effects. Obviously, we still have DDT and Splenda has not replace DDT as my friend seemed to be implicating in the comments on Diet Coke.

Also, I think that my friend might want to check out the source of these DDT and Splenda comments by Dr. Mercola who was the center of the microwaving stir. I guess the Center for Science in the Public Interest, no friend of industry, said that Dr. Mercola was wrong in saying microwaving foods was dangerous and destroyed all of the nutrients. I guess the Center endorsed microwaving, under certain conditions, as the best way to cook food and retain nutrients. Add to Dr. Mercola's FDA letters warning about unsupported claims on products that Dr. Mercola sells from his website, I can now see that self interest could be Dr. Mercola's reason for making such pronouncements on DDT and Splenda. Got any Stevia natural sugars Dr. Mercola?

But beyond all of this intellectual stuff, I go back to a study at Ohio State on rabbits that were being given high levels of toxins. I understand that a certain group of rabbits showed no effects to the toxins. Understandably the researchers were perplexed and investigated. To their surprise, the researchers found that the caretaker of these rabbits held the rabbits and stroked them lovingly while cleaning their cages and feeding them.

Maybe toxins in our food are not the problem, maybe it is a lack of affection and love in our world. If rabbits can transmute toxins with love and affection, why not us.

As always, I would be glad to others perspectives to clear the distortions of my own delusions :)).

6:16 AM  

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