Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Ever since the discovery of Diabetes as a disease connected with sugar, mankind has been continuously in quest of effective substitutes for natural sugar for patients who cannot utilize glucose efficiently. But at the same time most people did not want to sacrifice the pleasure of consuming sweet products that stimulates the palate! The relationship between glucose uptake and insulin has been well established and insulin therapy became a standard treatment regime for Type I diabetes. On the other hand Type II diabetes is increasingly being managed through dietary restriction on consumption of high glycemic index foods and various drugs that facilitate better uptake of glucose by the cells from the blood. The dynamics of diabetic management have changed so dramatically that the old concept of avoiding sugar and carbohydrate foods has given way to new concept of regulated intake of such foods over a longer duration which prevents glucose build up in the blood. 

Discovery of Saccharine in 19th century was a boon to diabetic patients and its universal adoption as a safe non-nutritive sweetener created a euphoria among diabetics. It is only later safety questions were raised and Saccharine lost its preeminent position as the most preferred synthetic sweetener. Though its harmful effects have not yet been conclusively proved at the level used in humans, consumers started observing some of its culinary defects demanding better non-calories sweeteners. During the last 50 years a number of sugar substitutes arrived on the scene, the most popular being Aspartame which is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. After enjoying near monopoly of the market, new findings raised some significant doubts regarding its safety for long term consumption. Even to day aspartame is not an unconditionally acceptable sweetener and some studies are still going on to find out if there are any significant health risks in consuming it regularly over a long period. 

It was only during the last one decade that Steviol glycosides, a natural plant derived sweetener with zero calorie yield and the man-made Sucralose started receiving attention for their excellent quality as sweeteners. Stevia glycosides have a long consumption history in South America where the plant leaves were being consumed for centuries with no reported ill effects and processing these leaves into pure crystalline chemicals responsible for the sweetening properties became a reality. To day Stevia leaves processing industry is one of the fastest growing segments of industry with an annual growth of almost 20%. Commercial cultivation of Stevia plant is being taken up in many parts of the world and it may be a question of time before it establishes its position as numero uno among the sugar substitutes. Its uneven taste imparting profile can be its only draw back while no one seriously questions its safety credentials. Even in this area efforts have been reported to improve its taste profile through blending of different fractions of the glycosides present in the leaves.

In came Sucralose to challenge other sugar major substitutes and became an instant hit with the consumers. Discovered accidentally towards the end of the last millennium, it was promoted as a high intensity sweetener, being 600 times sweeter than cane sugar. Whatever safety data have been generated seem to have been accepted in many countries and Sucralose seems to be pushing out Aspartame from its pedestal as most acceptable and cheapest in the market. Recently several inconvenient questions are being raised about the safety and efficacy credentials of this chlorinated sucrose chemical which do not seem to be getting any clear answer. Any non-nutritive sweetener must satisfy four important criteria. These include whether it contributes directly or indirectly to blood glucose elevation, whether it is reasonably safe, whether it is efficient in terms of imparting sweetness at the lowest concentration and whether it has any after taste. Sucralose, for a while enjoyed high acceptance on all the above criteria and it is only recently grave doubts are being expressed on some of them.     

While its efficiency regarding sweetening power and cost is universally accepted  it is the safety credential and the efficiency in controlling blood sugar level that are being questioned. According to some critics Sucralose is an organo chlorine compound, three of its hydroxyl group being replaced with chlorine through covalent bonds. Generally organochlorine compounds are highly toxic and most pesticides which are effective toxins for a variety of lower organisms belong to this class of compounds. How far Sucralose is comparable to these organochlorine pesticides in terms of toxicity is some thing not known to many consumers. One can only assume that the safety authorities in those countries which gave clearance to Sucralose must have adequate data on its safety for long term use. Consumers have a nagging doubt that adequate clinical studies using humans have not been carried out raising anxiety regarding its safety. 

Recent research findings in Washington University School of Medicine which have found that sucralose is not metabolically inert as was believed, raises enough concern and added to this it was found that instead, it actually raises blood sugar!. How this happens is some what a mystery though it is being hypothesized that Sucralose does so possibly by acting on receptors in intestines that mediate uptake of glucose into blood. In such an eventuality glucose absorption becomes more efficient raising the blood sugar level rapidly compared to normal conditions. Of course the industry which has latched on to Sucralose as an omnipotent zero calories ingredient in thousands of products could be hard hit financially if this finding is confirmed by further studies. Also millions of diabetic patients are going to be in for a shock if this is proven beyond doubt.  

Another disturbing report implicates Sucralose in destruction gut bacteria to the extent of 50% and if this is true Sucralose may find it hard to continue to enjoy the acceptability level it has now. It is now well recognized that health of gut bacterial population is directly linked to the health of a person and if this is disturbed by intense antibiotic therapy, the consequences are well established by many clinical trials. Similarly if Sucralose is confirmed to have an adverse effect on gut bacteria, as is being implied in some credible studies, it may be curtains down for this rising sugar substitute sooner or later. Already there are some reports which show that obese people have a drastically different gut bacterial profile and if these people start consuming Sucralose regularly as a part of their controlled diet regime, imagine the consequences! They will be gaining weight further in stead of shedding the same!  

What are the implications of this small study using a few obese individuals on the present status of diabetic patients and weight watchers? The effect this chemical entity has on glucose absorption might expose body to toxic levels of blood sugar that will lead to harm in the long term. Similarly those who shun natural sugar to cut down on calories may experience the opposite effect and end up gaining weight! Sooner this controversy is resolved better it will be for these anxious segments of the society. The developers of Sucralose have lot to answer to the public while the safety regulators will have eggs on their face if the above findings are substantiated through more organized and scientifically unimpeachable studies. Is Sucralose going to be the next "tobacco" that will shake the industry through class action by millions of consumers who believed them and their data? Did the original developers conceal the real data showing that this chemical really raises blood sugar level at concentrations recommended? If so they must be hauled up for possible criminal fraud against humanity! 

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