Popular Artificial Sweetener Penetrating the Gulf Stream, UNC Wilmington Scientists Confirm

Professor Brooks Avery, part of the UNCW Marine and Atmospheric Chemistry Research Laboratory, pours Splenda into a cup of coffee.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

While pouring the popular artificial sweeter sucralose into their morning coffees, University of North Carolina Wilmington Marine and Atmospheric Chemistry Research Laboratory (MACRL) researchers began to ponder, "If only 10 percent of this is going to stay in our bodies, what happens to the other 90 percent?"

This question led to the first scientific confirmation that sucralose is lingering in the Gulf Stream, the conveyor belt of water transport that circulates in the Atlantic Ocean from the coasts of North America to Europe, Africa and beyond.

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. 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.

MACRL professors Ralph Mead, Brooks Avery, Jeremy Morgan and Robert Kieber and graduate student Aleksandra Kirk were surprised by the lack of peer-reviewed research regarding the fate of sucralose once it enters the environment. Some Swiss and North American scientists previously found the chemical compound inland, but MACRL aimed to find out if sucralose could make it to the open ocean.

After identifying significant levels of sucralose in the North Carolina's Cape Fear River, the UNC Wilmington team conducted research cruises and sampled the waters of the Gulf Stream off the coasts of N.C. and Florida. All of the samples revealed the presence of sucralose, 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.

*Although the Environmental Protection Agency has identified the artificial sweetener as a "contaminant of emerging concern," it does not regulate pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), the bioactive chemical class that sucralose falls into. There are currently limited long-term studies on the substance's impact to humans, the environment, wildlife or vegetation.

"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.

Mead, Avery, Morgan and Kieber are concerned that sucralose could have long-term impacts on the environment. One concern is that the feeding habits of animals could be altered because sucralose mimics sugar but has no nutritional value. The research team is currently exploring how science may be able to mitigate the impact of sucralose on the environment by equipping wastewater treatment plants with the tools needed to remove the substance before it reaches the ocean.

This research was funded partially by seed grants from the National Science Foundation, the Duke/UNC Oceanographic Consortium and the UNCW Center for Marine Science. Results were published in the academic journal Marine Chemistry.

Media Contact:
Joy Davis, UNCW marketing and communications, 910.632.3903 or davisjc@uncw.edu

* This information came from a March 23, 2010, presentation on the UNCW campus by Dr. Susan Richardson of the EPA.