Splenda's Dirty Little Secret: It's Terrible for the Environment

Linda Sharps discovers her favorite sweetener has a dark side.

artificial sweetners

(Photo: Larry Page/Flickr; design: Lauren Wade)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

Every morning, I drink at least three cups of coffee. In the late afternoon, I often have a plain Greek yogurt for a snack. My evening treat of choice is a microwaved mug of almond milk, flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.

Boy, if that wasn't the most thrilling intro I've ever written, I don't know what is. I do have a point in detailing the components of my daily menu, and it's this: I add an unholy amount of sucralose to each of those foods. That's not even counting the foods I enjoy on a regular basis that already have artificial sweetener in them: flavored creamers, sugar-free Jell-o, protein powder, and more.

It's not like I'm unaware of controversy surrounding my beloved yellow Splenda packets. A 1998 report from the Food and Drug Administration stated that sucralose caused minor genetic damage in mouse cells. More recently, Splenda made headlines in June 2013 when the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog group, downgraded its safety rating of sucralose from "safe" to "caution," meaning that the additive "may pose a risk and needs to be better tested."

Some believe the human body may react to too much Splenda the same way it reacts to too much sugar, leading over time to diabetes. People have reported symptoms ranging from headaches to seizures as a result of using Splenda. Additionally, it's theorized that sucralose's turbocharged taste—600 times sweeter than table sugar—can boost appetite and reinforce cravings, ultimately erasing its touted calorie-cutting benefits.

So why do I continue to routinely consume a sucrose derivative created by chemically substituting three chlorine atoms for three hydroxyl groups? I guess I've never really bought into the idea that it's bad for me—or maybe it would be more honest to say that I don't really care that some people think it's bad for me. I've never suffered any ill effects from eating it, and since the available data continues to be so biased as to whether or not it's truly harmful to the body, it just hasn't made my radar for things I choose to worry about.

Also, I really like the way it tastes. Mmm-mmm, delicious molecular formula C12H19Cl3O8, just like Mom used to make. 

Besides, my dirty little Splenda addiction's surely not hurting anyone but me, assuming it's hurting me at all, right? I mean, it's not like it's, ha-ha, bad for the environment or anything. Right? 

Right?

(Ugh, when am I going to learn: The answer is always wrong. I don't want to go so far as to say that everything I enjoy is environmentally controversial, but, well, if the organic vegan recycled renewable-resource water-based-glue natural-fiber pesticide-free eco-latex shoe fits….)

As it turns out, the fact that we can't digest or absorb 90 percent of the chemical compound of sucralose means that it mostly goes through our bodies and into sewage treatment systems. Sucralose's unique chemical properties prevent it from being broken down in the conventional wastewater treatment process, so it travels on—unaltered—into surface and ground waters. Research performed by the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University studied wastewater samples for at least 48 days, and none of the samples showed a significant decrease in the amount of sucralose present. 

The good news is that since sucralose is resistant to degradation, it can't form the toxic by-products often formed by other pollutants. The bad news is that no one knows what the impact may be for the artificial sweeteners that are continually accumulating in our environment.

I've clearly been willing to set aside the various health concerns over artificial sugars to sweeten my coffee, but what about the potential ecotoxicological buildup? The Environmental Protection Agency has gone so far as to identify sucralose as a "contaminant of emerging concern," but the long-term effects may not be known until it's too late. The most eco-friendly choice seems obvious: I should kick my Splenda habit to the curb.

I should…but I haven't. Not yet, anyway. But here's what I noticed when I ripped open a packet this morning: I gave some thought to my actions, rather than blindly following my ingrained routine. I know more about sucralose than I did a week ago, and even if the results begin and end at mindfulness, I believe I'm better off than I was.

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