Have you had your daily dose of the latest controversial nutrition headlines? Some days I feel as though I’ve had more than my share. When that happens, I like to step back and remind myself that even the news has to be consumed in moderation for me to remain healthy and sane!
One of the more surprising items I read recently had to do with a new paper (about an old study), in which mice were given diets containing sucralose, the sweetening ingredient in SPLENDA® Sweetener Products and other foods. The research group that performed the study is a small institute in Italy with a history of publishing research that has been found to be unreliable in making safety assessments of food ingredients.
I was surprised to see this study published because it had been the subject of criticism when these researchers published an abstract about it over 4 years ago. Critics said the researchers used an unconventional study design that causes problems when evaluating the data and have found numerous other flaws in the way the study was conducted. They also said the researchers’ conclusions were not supported by a wide body of research that shows sucralose is safe, doesn’t cause cancer, and can be enjoyed in healthy meal plans aimed at reducing our intake of added sugar.
Another surprise was the move by a food “watchdog” group advising consumers to avoid sucralose based solely on this publication, despite the clear availability of reliable research which shows that sucralose is safe. This is disappointing, unwarranted, and not useful to consumers who want tools to help reduce added sugar in the diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not change its safety rating of sucralose, and neither did the dozens of other food and health agencies around the world that have approved sucralose as a safe sweetener.
After thinking more about this, I decided to prepare the simple steps below to help you keep things in perspective when you see stories about new research on a food or food ingredient that seem too crazy to be true. They just might not be!
3 Steps to Help You Navigate around Nutrition Research that is Drawing Media Attention
1. A single new research study about a food ingredient or type of food is typically not going to reverse a safety decision when a wide body of evidence already exists to show that an ingredient or type of food is safe.
The safety approval process for foods and additives involves collecting data from all types of research on that product. The designs of the different studies are ranked to make sure those of the highest caliber are given the greatest weight in decisions about safety for human use. Moreover, safety factors are applied to ensure that intakes are well within safe levels. Ongoing research can provide additional information, but new studies that reach conclusions different from the body of existing evidence must be thoroughly evaluated to understand why they differ from what is already known, and those studies must be repeated by other scientists to validate the findings.
The FDA reviewed more than 100 studies in animals and humans to determine the safety of sucralose. You can read about the many other international food safety and regulatory agencies that came to the same conclusions here.
2. Consider whether experts have weighed in.
It’s important to remember that the media want to have a story that will draw a big audience. Stories that shock or scare us commonly do that, especially if it’s about a food or ingredient that you and your family commonly enjoy. But when new research breaks, there often has not been enough time for a full expert review. If a food ingredient we have safely used for a long period of time is attacked, we need to reserve judgment until more experts can weigh in with their evaluations. A short sound byte from a single researcher which a reporter was able to track down for the story does not represent scientific consensus. Stories from certain “consumer advocacy” or “watchdog” groups need to be carefully monitored since those organizations may not be staffed with experts in food ingredient safety or risk assessment. On the other hand, they have a vested interest in getting your attention. That’s how they stay in existence.
We turn to licensed experts when we need a physician or electrician and should do the same when we need guidance about food safety. It is not possible to read and understand all of the scientific research about no- and low-calorie sweeteners ourselves, but highly qualified individuals have done just that and provide their expert opinions for us to follow.
The more consensus there is among food safety and health experts, the more confident you can be in their findings. If you are interested in learning more about expert evaluations on sucralose safety – you can find more here.
3. Do a little digging into how well the study was designed.
While you may not be an expert in assessing food ingredient safety (most people aren’t), sometimes things as simple as the dose that was used in a study can help you get a better picture of whether a new scare-story seems legit. It’s not uncommon that “bad” results come from investigating doses that have no relevance to any of us. While we often don’t stop to think about this, there is no food or ingredient that is safe under all circumstances. There is an old saying that “the dose makes the poison”, which is very true. Safety standards for foods and drugs are based on the amount consumed, the frequency of consumption and the age and size of the person, plus consideration of individual differences and environmental exposures. For drugs we call this the “dose.” In foods, it’s the amount we consume, on average, every day over a prolonged period of time. This is usually referred to as the Estimated Daily Intake (EDI). The EDI for sucralose is well below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) set by FDA. And the ADI is 100x less than amounts found to be safe in research studies.
Sucralose, the sweetening ingredient found in SPLENDA® Sweetener Products and other foods, is a safe FDA-approved ingredient. FDA actually permits sucralose for use as a “general purpose sweetener,” meaning that it can be used safely to replace sugar anywhere sugar is used. The amount we typically consume is well below levels determined by regulatory agencies to be safe.
I hope you find these tips helpful when you’re hit with the next sensationalized news story that paints a distorted picture about food ingredients that were safe and widely used until that story broke. Those stories are frequently way off-track and even harmfully wrong.
With regard to no-calorie sweeteners, these are some of the most studied food ingredients in the world. In particular, sucralose has been found safe by expert health and food safety agencies from around the world – which I’ve also discussed previously here and here.
Importantly, we also know that eating too many calories from added sugars can be contributing to the epidemic of overweight and obesity happening now in many countries around the world, including the U.S. This is reflected in the recent “Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children,” published by the World Health Organization in 2015, which recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases in adults and children, with a particular focus on the prevention and control of unhealthy weight and dental caries. And it’s also reflected in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends a reduction in added sugars intake to less than 10 percent of total calories.
Sucralose and other low-calorie sweeteners can be a useful tool in reducing our intake of added sugars, and numerous clinical trials show that they can help overweight individuals achieve a lower body weight. They can also be an important tool for persons with diabetes when used in place of sugar to help manage carbohydrate intake. Low-calorie sweeteners can help lower intake of unnecessary carbohydrate, leaving room for more nutrient-dense sources like low-fat dairy, whole grains and vegetables.
Check out the latest news on the safety of SPLENDA® Sweeteners: European Food Safety Authority Confirms Sucralose is Safe and Does Not Cause Cancer
I have been compensated for my time by Heartland Food Products Group, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog with Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.
Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, “The Everyday RD,” is an author and nutrition consultant who has headed the nutrition services department in a large teaching hospital and maintained a private practice where she provided diet therapy to individuals and families. With more than 30 years of experience, Robyn is motivated by the opportunity to help people make the best eating decisions for their everyday diet. She believes that choosing what to eat should not be a daily battle and aims to separate the facts from the fiction so you can enjoy eating well.