A new study by scientists from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington found that the bulk of the popular sweetener Splenda, which is used all over the world, is winding up in the Gulf Stream, the "conveyor belt of water transport" that circulates in the Atlantic Ocean from the coast of North American to Europe, Africa and beyond.
The study, conducted by the scientists at the university's Marine Atmospheric Chemistry Research Laboratory and the journal Marine Chemistry, said that only about 10 percent of the main component in Splenda, which is sucralose, is absorbed by the body, meaning 90 percent of it leaves the body and winds up in sewage systems.
"Sucralose, discovered in 1976 and made popular by Splenda in 1999, is used in 80 countries to sweeten foods and drinks without the calories and carbohydrates of sugar," said the university in a press release. "Although it is a derivative of table sugar (sucrose), sucralose cannot be effectively broken down by the bacteria in the human digestive tract. As a result, the body absorbs little or no calories and 90 percent of the chemical compound leaves the body through human waste and enters sewage systems."
Long-term effects? We don't know yet, and that's the problem
Ralph Mead, Brooks Avery, Jeremy Morgan and Robert Kieber, professors at the lab, along with graduate student Aleksandra Kirk, said they were surprised by the dearth of peer-reviewed research regarding what happens to sucralose once it enters the environment.
They said some scientists from Switzerland and North America previously found the chemical compound inland, but the MACRL researchers focused on whether sucralose had entered ocean currents.
After the research team found significant levels of the compound in North Carolina's Cape Fear River, scientists conducted research cruises, sampling waters of the Gulf Stream off the coasts of North Carolina and Florida.
"All of the samples revealed the presence of sucralose," said the university, "which indicated that the artificial sweetener endures the wastewater treatment processes designed to dissolve foreign chemicals."
"If sucralose is not eliminated through wastewater treatment and makes its way to the Gulf Stream, then theoretically, it will travel where the Gulf Stream goes." said Kieber.
The Environmental Protection Agency has identified the artificial sweetener as a "contaminant of emerging concern," but it does not yet regulate personal care products (PCC's) and pharmaceuticals, which is the bioactive chemical class that sucralose falls into.
Further, the university said, there are limited long-term studies on the compound's impact to humans, the environment, wildlife and vegetation.
The scientists said it's unclear what kind of damage, if any, prolonged exposure to the compound will cause.
"What happens when we have been exposed to these chemicals for 20-plus years, and we can't expel them? We have to start monitoring sucralose now," said Morgan.
The scientists said they are concerned that sucralose could have long-term impacts on the environment.
"One concern," said the university, "is that the feeding habits of animals could be altered because sucralose mimics sugar but has no nutritional value."
Sucralose causes weight gain as well
Currently, the research team is examining how science might mitigate the impact of sucralose on the environment by equipping waste water treatment plants with technology designed to remove the compound before it reaches the world's oceans.
An earlier study from nearby Duke University in 2008 found that Splenda use contributes to weight gain and other health problems.
The Duke study "makes it clear that the artificial sweetener Splenda and its key component sucralose pose a threat to the people who consume the product," said James Turner, chairman of Citizens for Health, an international non-profit consumer health education group.
"Hundreds of consumers have complained to us about side effects from using Splenda and this study ... confirms that the chemicals in the little yellow package should carry a big red warning label," he said.