I make no secret of my general scepticism about the food industry, and it seemingly endless ability to serve up supposedly ‘healthy’ foods and foodstuffs that, I reckon, are best avoided by those that value their health and well-being. Compounds that I feel fits into this category include artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel) and sucralose (Splenda). To date, most of my comments regarding the effects of artificial sweeteners on health have focused on aspartame. One reason for this is that this particular substance has been the focus of literally hundreds of studies. While the manufacturers of aspartame are quick to point to the studies that supposedly support the use of its product, they are no surprisingly less keen to inform the public of the evidence to the contrary. And perhaps most concerningly of all, while 100 per cent of studies funded in whole or part by the aspartame-producing industry conclude that aspartame is safe, the vast majority of independently-funded studies suggest that it is not .
Despite the science which suggests aspartame might not be as healthy as its manufacturers would have us believe it to be and not a little controversy, this sweetener has sold extremely well and proved highly profitable. In recent times, though, its position as the sweetener of choice has been challenged by ‘sucralose’, which is marketed under the brand name ‘Splenda’.
Splenda is basically chlorinated sucrose (table sugar). Its manufacturers, McNeil Nutritionals (a division of Johnson and Johnson), have marketed it on the basis that it is ‘Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar’.
News out this week shows that exception to this marketing ploy has been taken by the Merisant Company ” manufacturers of the aspartame based products Equal and NutraSweet. Today sees the start of legal action instigated by Merisant in which it is alleged that McNeil have misled consumers into believing that Splenda contains actual sugar and is a natural product.
One thing that is curious about this case is that the line taken by McNeil to market sucralose is actually very similar to the one often used by manufacturers to justify aspartame and allay fears about this foodstuff. See this, for instance, from the website www.aspartame.info: It is made from two building blocks of protein just like those found naturally in many everyday foods such as meat, fish, cheese, eggs and milk. Aspartame is digested by the body in exactly the same way as these other protein foods and so does not bring anything new to the diet.
And this description fails to mention the presence of a chemical entity known as a ‘methyl group’ in aspartame that can be cleaved from aspartame to make methanol (wood alcohol). Not only is this a known toxin, it has the capacity to be transformed into other potentially toxic substances including formaldehyde (used, among other things, to preserve dead bodies).
And while we’re on the subject of toxicity, I feel it is worth pointing out that sucralose technically belongs to a group of compounds known as the ‘chlorocarbons’. Other members of this chemical group include the pesticides lindane and DDT.
As Merisant and McNeil ‘face off’ over the coming weeks, it may be that increasing attention is placed on the alien-to-nature of not just sucralose, but aspartame too. Don’t be too surprised if some see this as an opportunity to put these compounds under renewed scrutiny from a toxicological perspective. That, I reckon, will be no bad thing.
Whoever ends up prevailing in legal action that gets underway today, there’s always the chance that there will be no true winners in the end.