As far as I know, Splenda is the only artificial sweetener that has the following properties, all together:
- Tastes good. I can't tell it apart from sugar.
- Doesn't promote tooth decay or halitosis (bad breath).
- No aftertaste whatsoever.
- Efficient (high taste/mass ratio, and hence value/price ratio.)
- Survives baking/cooking.
Recently I decided to read up on Splenda. Because of the above attributes, all I had ever seen were raves advocating Splenda's use. My own experience (a year's worth of satisfied use) didn't leave me questioning these reviews. But I took it as a challenge to find some dissenting opintions, and after some digging online, I did find negative reviews of Splenda.
Most notable was a review (more like an advisory page, really) from Dr. Ian Mercola, who is well known for his unconventional health views (http://www.mercola.com). He always makes an interesting read and isn't afraid to question the health establishment and standard folk wisdom, for which I tip my hat to him.
But in this case I think he's wrong. In his page devoted to Splenda, he warns against the synthetic sweetener, and concludes that it must be avoided at all costs (apparently without exception). He bases this conclusion upon some anecdotal evidence, the lack of long-term studies of Splenda's effect in humans, and an observation about the chemical structure of sucralose.
I believe that it is a mistake to completely eliminate a useful substance based on these reasons, and I warn the reader against being swayed by scare tactics such as Mercola's page.
Let me explain why his page constitutes "scare tactics", however.
Anecdotal evidence always looks convincing, especially when you only give anecdotes supporting your conclusion1. Splenda is used happily by hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people in many countries, where it has been approved for consumption by national boards of health over and over again (not that I trust national boards of health that terribly much, but this does seem to indicate that there's nothing horribly, overtly wrong with Splenda). Dr. Mercola has about 10 anecdotes. What one can derive from these anecdotes posted by Mercola is that some people are probably allergic to Splenda. But some people are allergic to peanuts. Some people are allergic to milk. Some people are even allergic to flour. If we collected anecdotes of peanut allergy (for instance) on a single page, we could produce a feature just as scary as Mercola's which concludes that peanuts must be destroyed at all costs (airlines apparently took this route in reality, so now I can only get empty-calorie pretzels or snack mix on planes, as opposed to the more useful protein-containing peanuts.2)
Here's an opposing anecdote: I've used Splenda for a year with no observable ill effects. Recently I stopped using it, just to see if I could detect any changes. As of yet, I've noticed no difference.
As for the chemical structure: sucralose is produce by chlorinating standard sugar molecules. This creates an altered molecule which is not absorbed or metabolised by the body. Mercola (and others) make a big show of putting "chlorine" in big bold scare letters. After all, chlorine is that poisonous stuff you put in your pool to kill bacteria - you sure wouldn't want to eat it (even this is a specious argument - you put antibiotics in yourself precisely to kill bacteria.)
But let's take a step back. Chlorine is also half of the ubiquitous and innocuous table salt (NaCl). In fact, you wouldn't want to eat Na (Sodium) by itself either, as it is explosive upon contact with water. But NaCl is a vastly different beast than Na or Cl alone. The list goes on and on-- Hydrogen is explosive Oxygen is corrosive and flammable. Together they form H2O, which is clearly safe.
I can't actually believe that Dr. Mercola doesn't understand some basic chemistry and physics. It appears that what he is doing is much more sinister: using the ignorance of the consumer to further his own agenda. Other anti-Splenda crusaders who do the same are just as guilty of deception.
Mercola also mentions in passing that the chemical structure of Splenda "looks like a pesticide", which is about as close to a rigorous argument as "it contains a component which is by itself dangerous, and hence must be dangerous in total." In general, this is a "whole = part" fallacy.
Finally, Mercola notes that there are no long-term studies of the effect of Splenda. This is true, of course - Splenda hasn't been around long. Perhaps there is some subtle effect of Splenda over a large number of years, but other than allergies, it would be just that - subtle.
There are plenty of foods that people have always been eating, but only recently received long-term effect studies. Sugar is an example of one of these (which Mercola oddly calls "perfectly safe" in his piece3), which we now can associate with the widespread occurrence of diabetes in industrialized nations. In other words, if we waited for detailed, long-term effect studies for every food, we'd have a pretty pathetic diet left. Life does not wait for rigorous scientific analysis.
Long-term effect studies are a funny thing. They require a large sample set (number of participants) and an equally large control set to make any sort of case for some substance having an effect over time. In a posteriori studies (ones which use existing data), which are easier to do, there usually isn't a clear case for causality (the substance in question causing an effect) instead of correlation (the substance in question merely coinciding with the effect). It is not enough to simply consume some substance for a long time to get the benefit of a "long-term effect study". If this were so, we'd essentially have such data for every food that's been a part of our diet throughout history. But we don't. An actual rigorous scientific study is very controlled and very specific, and actually does take as many years as "long-term" is judged to last. Every variable must be taken into account to a reasonable level of confidence. It is not an easy thing to do. In sum, demanding a long-term effect study for every food is unreasonable.
It might be useful in this situation to compare the potential dangers of Splenda against things like alcohol use or even consumption of sugar over the long term. If you're worried, moderation is key. Consumers must weigh the utility of using Splenda against the lack of long-term studies, as they must do whenever there aren't such studies available (or known to them).
Long-term effects studies are never demanded for foods we've been eating all along - even when we find out later that these foods do have detrimental long-term effects. The only explanation I can find for this extra attention paid to synthetic foods is purely psychological - worriment over humans "playing God" with our food. Many have an innate feeling (perhaps more subconscious than outright) that it's somehow immoral to apply science and technology to food. There's also the bonus that if something goes wrong with a synthetic food, there's someone to blame. It's extremely easy to point the finger at the person or corporation who created it, and people are very eager to shift the blame for their own carelessness onto someone else. But there is no scapegoat for foods which have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Splenda, and other "engineered" foods are not necessary bad. They may not even be more bad than good. And they're not something to be afraid of. I'd be surprised if Splenda had no negative effect 4, since pretty much everything does, taken in excess. In fact, it is well known that a diverse diet and moderation is the foundation of health - any component of a "healthy" diet can become unhealthy in excess (for example, this and this recent research seems to indicate that vitamin C becomes harmful at and beyond dosage levels that many medical professionals advocate). In sum, pages like Mercola's and others simply appeal to the emotions. They are pure sophistry. Accurate information and education (this includes proper context and philosophical perspective for the information) would allow consumers to make informed choices on their own, and would do them a much more useful service.
1. Some have pointed out that I started this article with an anecdote. However, I disagree: for familiarity, I was simply associating myself with a product which is widely known to have the listed properties. In any case, my own experience is not meant to be taken as universal "evidence." - otherwise Mercola's handful of anecdotes would constitute greater "evidence." Real evidence cannot even really be considered purely a function of some large number of anecdotes, as anecdotes typically fail to satisfy the criteria for rigorous scientific experimentation. It is not hard, reading through Mercola's anecdotes (or anecdotes in general), to see this.
2. Previously this paragraph ended with a comment about fanatics being responsible for the removal of peanuts entirely from many airlines' menus. I retract this statement. In fact, the airlines themselves are more to blame for a poor solution implemented to address valid objections (especially that small children do not know their allergies and may react very severely.) I believe a better solution would have been to keep the item in question at least available upon request, which jibes with my general sentiment that one needn't ban something entirely in order to solve a problem which arises with a minority.
3. Perhaps Dr. Mercola is referring only to allergenic effects, and I am not aware of any caused by plain cane sugar. Still, in this case it seems that Mercola has no good substitute to call upon, which leaves a "hole" in people's diets that will be replaced by something. See this article for more about sugar.
4. In fact, Mercola's anecdotes did convince me that there is like some set of people who are violently allergic to Splenda. I doubt it is as large a proportion as many other common food allergies, since nobody else seems to have discovered this in small to medium-sized studies and through widespread use.
Also troubling is the possibility Mercola raises that the manufacturer may have lied about absorption rates. For such conduct, reprehension is certainly in order. But of course, counter-evidence is required.
Dr. Mercola also makes other very valid observations, like the lack of biochemical studies and environmental studies of the substance sucralose and its byproducts. Again I believe a valid point is that we simply cannot evaluate every possibility before acting, especially when there is immediate utility to be had. I would expect such analysis to be ongoing and done eventually, however. Perhaps as a medical professional, Dr. Mercola is in a good position to conduct such research himself, or at least have the means to set it in motion.