Not so sweet: Fake sugar found at sea

Surprising abundance of the artificial sweetener Splenda is reported in North Sea


Sucralose is found in artificial sweeteners such as Splenda. It has also been found at several spots in the North Sea, raising concern about possible impacts on the environment.

Adam Bartlett/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

Fake sweeteners may seem like a good calorie-saving substitute for sugar. But researchers in Europe have now found traces of one of these sweeteners at five sites in the North Sea. That might be a problem, they warn. What makes the fake sugar helpful for waistlines, they say, could be bad for the environment.

This is one of the first studies to show that artificial sweeteners can end up far from shore in levels high enough to be detected, says Luca Nizzetto. This environmental scientist led the study. He works at the Norwegian Institute for Water Resources in Oslo.

The findings deal with sucralose. And they are concerning, Nizzetto says, because it’s not yet clear how adding it to aquatic ecosystems may affect the plants and animals in them.

Sucralose is sold under the brand name of Splenda. Many people and food companies use it to sweeten such things as desserts, breads and sodas. Sucralose is a diet aid because the human body doesn’t break it down and use it to fuel activities. Instead, the body excretes it in urine and feces.

Once flushed down the toilet, sucralose heads to water-treatment plants. These facilities are designed to remove pollutants from wastewater. But they aren’t great at removing the fake sugar. One study found that at least 98 percent of sucralose in water gets through such treatment plants. That allows it to pollute streams, groundwater — even drinking water.

Ultimately, some of the fake sugar has been washing out to sea, Nizzetto and his colleagues now report. Their new findings appeared early online, March 9, in the Journal of Marine Systems.

Sweetener was prevalent and plentiful

The team looked for traces of pollutants at five sites in the North Sea. They found pesticides, drugs, beauty products and food additives. Sucralose was the most plentiful of all. It showed up in every sample. And sucralose levels were three to six times as high as that of any other sweetener.

There is no evidence that sucralose is toxic to people. But a few studies have hinted that this fake sugar might harm other animals and plants.

A 2012 study in the journal Chemosphere showed it could make some crustaceans swim either faster or slower than normal. Another recent study also found that mice fed sucralose throughout their lives could develop blood cancers. Those results were published January 29 in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. Other researchers have suggested the sweetener may block the ability of plants to make food.

Sucralose’s use has been increasing. That suggests that its abundance in the environment could grow, too. This concerns some scientists because so little is known about whether long-term exposure to fake sweeteners may pose risks to plants, says Valeria Dulio.

It’s also not clear if the buildup of the fake sugar in seawater might indirectly affect people. How? Possibly, she says, by messing with the fish and other seafood we eat. Dulio is an environmental scientist at the National Institute for Industrial Environment and Risks in Verneuil-en-Halatte, France. Both she and Nizzetto are part of the NORMAN Network. It’s an international group of labs and research centers that monitors environmental pollutants. The group has named sucralose an “emerging substance of concern.”

The only way to stop sucralose from building up in the environment, Dulio says, is to stop using it.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

artificial sweetener     A chemical substance that has a sweet taste but few or no calories. People and food manufacturers add artificial sweeteners to foods and drinks to give them a sweeter taste. Many different artificial sweeteners exist. They include saccharin, sucralose and aspartame, among others.

calorie    The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food.

cancer    Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

contaminant     Pollutant; a chemical, biological or other substance that is unwanted or unnatural in an environment such as water, soil, air, or food. Some contaminants may be harmful in the amounts at which they occur or if they are allowed to build up in the body over time.  

crustaceans    Hard-shelled water-dwelling animals including lobsters, crabs, shrimp and water fleas.

ecosystem    A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

environment    The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create for that organism or process. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature, humidity and placement of components in some electronics system or product.

environmental science   The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

excrete    To remove waste products from the body, such as in the urine.

freshwater    A noun or adjective that describes bodies of water with very low concentrations of salt. It’s the type of water used for drinking and making up most inland lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, as well as groundwater.

groundwater    Water that is held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock.

marine    Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

organism    Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

pesticide     A chemical or mix of compounds used to kill insects, rodents or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants, pet or livestock, or unwanted organisms that infest homes, offices, farm buildings and other protected structures.

pollutant    A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

sewage    Wastes — primarily urine and feces — that are mixed with water and flushed away from homes through a system of pipes for disposal in the environment (sometimes after being treated in a big water-treatment plant).

sucralose    An artificial sugar sold under the brand name Splenda (among other brands). Sucralose is much sweeter than sucrose.

toxic    Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

toxicology   The branch of science that probes poisons and how they disrupt the health of people and other organisms. Scientists who work in this field are called toxicologists.

wastewater    Any water that has been used for some purpose (such as cleaning) and no longer is clean or safe enough for use without some type of treatment. Examples include the water that goes down the kitchen sink or bathtub or water that has been used in manufacturing some product, such as a dyed fabric. 

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