Keep it sweet

Everybody needs a little sweetness in their life. That was clear when I saw the amount of e-mails from HSI members in response to a recent e-Alert (“Don’t Fill ‘er Up” 2/13/03), in which HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., addressed some of the concerns with the sugar substitute called sucralose.

Judging from the questions you sent, it’s clear that the search is on for a safe alternative to sugar – particularly for the special requirements of diabetics. An e-mail from a member named Stephen, for instance, posed a question that other members asked as well: “In re your article on sucralose sweetener, is it safe for diabetics to use? I am a Type 2 Diabetic.”

The short answer to Stephen’s question: I wouldn’t recommend it. And as we look at some of the details, the reasons why will become obvious. Fortunately, however, there are good alternatives available.

Let loose the sucralose

A member named James has found a sweetener he likes, but has a reservation: “I’d like to see a report on the sugar substitute “Splenda.” I like the taste and it works cup for cup as sugar does. However, someone told me the processing of Splenda leaves something undesirable.”

Splenda is a brand name for sucralose, and the “something undesirable” is chlorine. Supposedly, the chlorine transforms the sugar molecule of sucralose so that it can’t be metabolized by the body. That’s the idea anyway. As Dr. Spreen noted in the e-Alert two weeks ago, “There have since been reports of up to 30 percent being absorbed and symptoms being caused.”

Also, according to the Sucralose Toxicity Information Center, research in the 90’s demonstrated that years of sucralose use may lead to immune system and neurological disorders. Only further testing will determine how serious this concern is, but in the meantime, sucralose users are essentially venturing into the unknown.

Sleepless in Splenda

A single case can’t quite measure up to the results of a controlled clinical trial, but the personal experience of an HSI member named Larry gives an indication that sucralose might not be quite as safe as some reports would have us believe.

Larry writes that about a year after he started using sucralose he began having sleep problems, which gradually worsened to the point where he rarely slept at all. His doctor prescribed different sleeping aids, but only one was effective. Larry says, “The real problem was that my brain was never shutting down. All the drug was doing was knocking me out. I got no true sleep for nearly a year.”

Finally, he discovered what he thought might be the source of his problems: “I mixed up some fresh limeade each day with Splenda, and realized I was having attacks to my nervous system. I started reading all I could on the two sweeteners I used for the most part, and I found many horror stories about both aspartame and sucralose. I went to an alternative medicine doc who found my body testing positive for both aspartame and sucralose poisoning. These products had depleted the serotonin levels in my brain to such an extent that both the sleep receptors and my metabolism had been completely messed up.”

Two years after removing sucralose and aspartame from his diet, Larry is now sleeping normally again, and has lost most of the weight he gained during his ordeal. He closes his e-mail with this statement: “I would warn anyone to stay away from both of these unnatural artificial sweeteners.”

Pearly whites

The frightening health problems associated with aspartame are well documented. This popular sugar substitute (the brand name is Nutra-sweet, used in most diet sodas) has been shown to either mimic or worsen diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, depression – and the list goes on. I’ll cover the aspartame question at more length in a future e-Alert. But right now, we’ll take a look at two sweeteners that apparently don’t come with a host of drawbacks.

An HSI member named Ron writes with this question: “What about xylitol? My understanding is that it is a simple sugar that does not cause a spike in blood sugar level, has at least 40% fewer calories than sugar, and has dental benefits.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! Try as I might, I can’t find any negative reports about xylitol. This sweetener, developed in Finland, has been around since the late 70’s, and research really does support the remarkable claim that xylitol may prevent tooth decay. Furthermore, the source is natural – rendered from xylan, the structural fiber of birch wood.

Ron’s information about xylitol not causing a spike in blood sugar level is confirmed by at least one study where the glucose and insulin responses of 80 healthy, non-obese men were measured after ingesting xylitol. Results showed that both glucose and insulin were less affected by xylitol intake than by glucose intake, and researchers concluded that xylitol is suitable for diabetics.

Two in the plus column

To bring this sweet e-Alert back full circle, I’ll return to Stephen’s original question about sucralose: “Is it safe for diabetics?” As I’ve already said, with all the other concerns raised here, I wouldn’t recommend it. Xylitol would seem to be a far better choice, especially because it happens to be available in bulk form (just like sugar), and can even be used in recipes, with any measurement for sugar equaling the same measurement for xylitol.

But Stephen has yet another alternative for sugar. One of the featured articles in the January 2003 Members Alert (“Six Diabetes-Fighting Secrets Straight from the Amazon”), noted that the natural sweetener called stevia is 300 times sweeter than cane sugar, and yet an animal study showed that it suppressed glucose response while increasing insulin levels. I should mention, however, that some people find stevia bitter.

Among the variety of sugar substitutes, there are those that provide clear benefits, while others appear to have drawbacks, and still others that may have serious long-term side effects that we simply don’t know about yet. Read the labels on your beverages and foods carefully to be certain you’re making the right choices for you.


To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“What is Sucralose and is it Safe?” Lynn Grieger,
“The Sucralose Toxicity Information Center” Holistic Healing Web Page,
“Metabolic Response to Lactitol and Xylitol in Healthy Men” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1997, 65(4): 947-950
“Safety of Xylitol” Dr. Joseph Mercola,
“What is Xylitol?”
“Aspartame (Nutrasweet) Avoidance”