This Just In: Sugar Is a Chemical!

The new sugar substitute Splenda is growing in popularity, reported the May 21 Wall Street Journal, in part because of lingering (albeit unjustified) health concerns about older substitutes such as Sweet'N Low and Nutrasweet, and in part because of enthusiastic customers such as Gloria Cross, a retired medical technician, who swears by Splenda. When her friends use other sweeteners, Cross tells them, "No, no, you don't understand. Those are chemicals and Splenda is not a chemical."

Well, it's certainly true that there is a prevailing prejudice against new chemicals created by humans even when there is no evidence those chemicals are dangerous but the truth is that all of nature is made out of chemicals (some far more dangerous than the ones humans make, many others comparable to man's, a point made in ACSH's annual Holiday Dinner Menu of commonly-consumed chemicals). Splenda, contrary to Cross's belief, is a chemical. It's made from sucralose, a slight variation on sucrose (sugar).

Here's sucralose's chemical formula:


And while we're at it, here's sugar's chemical formula, since it, too, is a chemical:


Chemicals are omnipresent building blocks in nature and to point to "chemicals" in general as dangerous things is to cast an absurdly wide net. We are reminded of a poorly-written TV commercial from several years ago in which a curious child asked his father, "Is the Moon made of green cheese?" and received the well-intended but utterly meaningless response, "No, son, the Moon is made of molecules." The father in the ad was meant to look quite erudite, but his response is ludicrous on two levels: first, virtually everything is made out of molecules; second, green cheese is made out of molecules, too, so he hasn't even explained to his son why the green cheese theory is mistaken.

If consumers want to avoid chemicals altogether, they will have to devise a way to jump out of their own skins, since humans, too, are composed of chemicals (most involving carbon). The only way to eliminate chemicals once and for all may be to destroy the entire universe green cheese, Splenda, human beings, and all which would be a logical end to the ongoing crusade against chemicals.

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D. is ACSH's director of nutrition and Todd Seavey edits


May 28, 2002

Nice article about Splenda. When I taught university chemistry about 50% of all freshmen would drop out or flunk by the end of the year (still a pretty good rule of thumb). I have the sick feeling now that the flunkers have grown up to be either regulators or leaders of the environmentalists.

Mike Fox

August 19, 2002

Here's the dictionary's definition of "chemical" that most people would relate to: "A substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process." When people hear of chemicals, do they think of honey, rainwater, peanut oil, butter, or milk?

The word "chemical" is widely understood to be any manmade or altered substance with a distinct composition, just like the definition says. But for Gloria Cross to say "it's not a chemical" is wrong on one count and half wrong on the other: Sucralose is chlorinated sugar sugar that has had three hydroxyl groups kicked out in favor of three chlorine atoms. Thus, it is a substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process.

Plus, she's wrong to discount the harmfulness of the stuff. Does anyone know what happens to the human body after twenty years of consuming Sucralose and some of its toxic byproducts, like chlorinated monosaccharide/disaccharides? Nope. How about three years? Wrong there, too.

I've tasted Sucralose in undiluted form. If you like antifreeze then you might find it to be a nice taste. Otherwise you may want to stick to something that wasn't developed in a laboratory to sweeten your tea.


February 11, 2003

I find it very misleading to defuse the fear of synthetic sugar substitutes by essential saying that they are equal: they are all chemicals. I am a chemical engineer and find this line of logic very misleading and deceptive to the public. Sugar is a chemical. Water is a chemical. Benzene is a chemical. Mustard gas is a chemical. Not all chemicals are equal. I find that most of the fears of sugar substitutes is that they are synthetic not naturally used by humans and have no history of safety, health, etc.

Chris Nidel

Kava replies:

Of course you are right that not all chemicals are equally good or bad: that dichotomy is useless. But so is the dichotomy between "natural" and "synthetic" chemicals there are plenty of naturally occurring chemicals that are quite deadly and plenty of synthetic ones that are benign, if not beneficial. We simply wished to point out the fallacy of basing one's concerns on whether or not a compound is called a chemical or a synthetic chemical. Also, some sugar substitutes have been in use for decades (saccharin, for example) and have produced no health hazards. The newer substitutes are used in such minute amounts that it's hard to imagine their being harmful (and yes, they are tested for safety).

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D.
Director of Nutrition
American Council on Science and Health