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Artificial sweeteners - An ignored environmental threat? - sorze4 AS
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Artificial sweeteners – An ignored environmental threat?

Authors: MSc Claudia R.P. Münch-Yttereng a and Engineer Jan Ytterengb,

a Master of Science Nutrition, obesity and eating disorders, Chief Research Officer sorze4 AS and JustSweet AS
b Engineer HVAC, Environment and Municipal Engineering, and Energy conservation. Chief Executive Officer sorze4 AS

The main focus of our survey, which this text is based upon, is the influence sweeteners have on the nature and the environment. How the environment is influenced by the choices made by the food industry for the consumers when it comes to use of ingredients in food and hygiene products.

For those who are interested in the health aspects of the mentioned sweeteners, it is recommended to read on:

Note! The authors of the text are shareholders of the company Sorze4 AS, which is the developer of the natural prebiotic sweetener JustSweet. Sorze4 AS is a shareholder of Just Sweet AS, which manufactures and sells JustSweet Sweets and JustSweet dietary fiber.

For decades, the food industry has used artificial (intense) sweeteners like sugar-free, or low-calorie sugar substitutes. In addition to lowering calorie content, artificial sweeteners have been able to help control blood sugar levels in diabetics, reduce the risk of tooth decay1, and for some food products, they have been able to extend the shelf life. This type of sweeteners is also used in sanitary products such as toothpaste and as a drug aid (sweetener, flavor enhancer).

It is claimed, but is also contested, that the consumption of such artificial sweeteners is harmless to humans.


New pollutants

People do not think that something they consume will go straight through the body, but artificial sweeteners are produced, consumed, and released into nature in large quantities. They have been identified as new pollutants (Kokotou et al., 2012; Lange et al., 2012).

In 2005, the respective global consumption of acesulfame (ACE), saccharin (SAC), and cyclamate (CYC) was reported to be 90-thousand tons. By 2013, nearly 2 thousand tons of sucralose (SUC) were consumed in the United States and Europe alone. These sweeteners pass largely unchanged through the human body and end up eventually in the aquatic environment. Lakes, rivers and the sea are contaminated by artificial sweeteners. The degradation time may be more than 10 years.

From an environmental point of view, steviol glycosides are preferred as sweeteners since these are considered to be 100% biodegradable.

For sweeteners like aspartame (ASP), they have not found such huge amounts related to emissions and in nature, but they exist. From an environmental perspective, however, the sweetener can pose an environmental threat, as genetically modified ingredients and bacteria are part of the production process.

The reason why drugs like aspartame are not labeled as GMOs in Europe is due to the definition of what is considered GMO in the regulatory framework.

An outsider such as Scientific American explains this in a different way:

«Aspartame is made by fermenting corn and soy, the two biggest genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Environmentalists are concerned that such tinkering with nature could have unexpected and potentially disastrous results down the road.»

Comment: The bacterial culture used, B. flavum and C. Glutamicum, is GMO – Often like maize and soy used in the production are Genetically Modified (GMO).

Aspartame is rarely just aspartame

Products with aspartame are rarely just aspartame. The sweetener is often mixed with acesulfame K * and / or cyclamate, so even if the bulk of the sweetener, in isolation, breaks down into amino acids, formaldehyde and methanol in the body, products with aspartame as sweeteners will contribute to environmentally polluting emissions that are not always captured in treatment plants.

No environmental assessments for food additives

In the EU, it was previously forbidden to conduct environmental assessments in the risk assessment of food additives. Chemical sweeteners such as sucralose (SUC), aspartame (ASP), cyclamate (CYK), and others. is approved and considered by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as safe for humans as long as it is kept below the daily intake limit.

Nevertheless, it can be said that no consideration has been given to the environmental impacts of such synthetic ingredients have. Even if a substance is considered harmless to the human body, it does not necessarily mean that it is harmless, or without affecting fish, birds, plants and other life in nature.

Article 7 of the European Additives Regulation (EC) No 1333/2008 states that environmental factors should also be taken into account when approving food additives, but no mandatory studies are required for industrial chemicals and their environmental impact is determined.

Artificial sweeteners are widely used as additives in different foods because it is extremely sweet, without containing calories. But “does not contain calories” means in other words that the substance is highly resistant to degradation. Both in the human body and in the environment (nature). One might say that a product that does not break into the human body, nor will it break into nature. At best, it will be diluted, but prolonged use will yield ever higher concentrations, which can eventually lead to unforeseen consequences.

Artificial sweeteners are distributed with wastewater

Artificial sweeteners are spread with sewage, weather, and wind. The long degradation time means that such substances potentially also have long-lasting effects on the environment.

While scientists are competing to “free” artificial sweeteners from any form of health hazard, they may seem as if some of them have a somewhat limited “view” and have not taken into account long-term effects. Neither for the body nor for nature.

Water samples from 25 different treatment plants in Sweden show the extensive spread of sucralose (SUC) in nature. Gross calculations from 2006 show that five to six million tonnes of sucralose are spread in Sweden every year and then other synthetic sweeteners come in addition.

Screening carried out in the Nordic countries, including Aarhus University, shows that the wastewater from the treatment plants contains the sweeteners aspartame, sucralose and cyclamate, with the presumed origin of soda and dairy products.

However, with more advanced treatment plants, the majority (N94%) of saccharine and cyclamate emissions may be eliminated, but not necessarily other sweeteners such as sucralose.

There are no rules for how much artificial sweeteners water treatment plants can discharge. The reason is that it has not been possible to prove, well enough or to focus on the effects of the sweeteners on the environment and the authorities are therefore looking to close their eyes to the environmental hazards that may cause.

However, there is research that documents artificial sweeteners can stop photosynthesis in plants, which could cause a problem for food production in agriculture and for algae at the bottom of the food chain in the oceans.

To the best of our knowledge, no living organism in nature has enzymes to break down covalently bound chloride (sucralose). Why should it exist? There have never been such substances in nature, so what we consume and emit with wastewater can accumulate there, in nature.

According to the report: “Sucralose metabolism and pharmacokinetics in man”, sucralose has almost twice as long half-life in the body as radioactive plasma.

In nature, it is estimated that it will take at least 10 years before sucralose is broken down.

Hundreds of thousands of cans of light-soda flushed out in the Niagara Falls

In the waters flowing through Ontario’s Grand River, which expires in Lake Erie, researchers from the University of Waterloo and Environment Canada found that the amount of sugar substitute in the water flowing through the 300-kilometer-long every day equals between 81- and 190- thousand cans of artificial sweet soda.

Lake Erie flows out into the Niagara River, and then it’s possible to visualize one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, Niagara Falls, with 200-thousand cans of light soda being flushed out?

The study tested for sucralose, cyclamate, saccharin, and acesulfame K, which are used in both soft drinks and dairy products. The researchers found these types of sweeteners in the tap water in the Canadian city of Brantford. The soils are thus in the drinking water sources and are not caught in the treatment plants.

The agriculture that waters the fields with the same water could risk that photosynthesis in the crop is disturbed or prevented, which will reduce food production.

There were found 0.15 micrograms of sweetener for each liter of water, which means there could be 72 tons of sweetener floating around Lake Erie. Now, years after the survey, with more and more consumers of light products, it may be reasonable for this number to have passed 100 tonnes for a long time, considering that the sweeteners are not broken down and that since the measurement was made, they have come to further supplies of the same sweeteners.

Great potential for a domino effect

Researchers believe that animals are fooled and consume fewer calories than is necessary for them to be healthy and reproduce. This may also apply to other animal species.

When people think of small animals and small organisms, they tend not to be worried, but this consequence of sweeteners has the potential for a domino effect.

A study published by Environmental Science and Technology also found large amounts of sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame near sewage treatment plants in New York State. The study indicates that sweeteners can damage plants’ ability to perform photosynthesis.

This can lead to less food for animals dependent on plants, which gives ripple effects that affect humans.

Sweetness – A biological property

Sweetness is a biological property that is important for animal nutrition and the ability to orient itself. Thus, one can assume what kind of effects artificial sweeteners are thought to have in nature.

In a type of arctic hopper, researchers found that chronic exposure to sucralose could affect the development of eggs and freshwater scraps exposed to sucralose caused a faster heartbeat.

Scientists believe that sweeteners can also have an effect on other animals. Effects not caught in studies of biological damage.

Some believe that certain fish species navigate to mud places by means of flavors, which, of course, could interfere with the cod’s migration to Lofoten (where cod is sprouting in Norway). In that case, oil drilling and potential contamination from such an industry will be a trifle in comparison.

Most of it ends up in the Gulf Stream

A study published in 2013 by researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) confirmed that most of the sucralose used around the world ends up in the Gulf Stream. The ocean currents start in the Gulf of Mexico and end up in Norwegian and Arctic waters.

«Sucralose can not be effectively broken down by the bacteria in human digestive systems, according to UNC.»

The body absorbs little or no calories and 90 percent of the chemical leaves the body through urine and feces and enters the drainage systems. The rest is thought to be accumulated in the body, or end up as food for unwanted bacteria.

Israeli research has indicated that some of the synthetic sweeteners act as nutrition for the bad unwanted intestinal bacteria, and negatively affect the good ones. In the presence of bad bacteria, antibiotics are used to eradicate the bacterial flora.

Since artificial sweeteners can not be broken down into the body, or by water treatment systems, it ends up in the oceans, where long-term effects remain unknown until funding is granted for research.

For other synthetic sweeteners, there is not as much research as to how they break down in the body, but it is hardly unreasonable to assume that if the digestive system bacteria do not break it down, it probably will not break into nature either. In nature, such substances will be diluted, but as soon as you fill up, the instances will be higher.

In what products do you find artificial sweeteners?

Dairy products like yogurt. Soda, juice, and icing, but we consume more than we are aware of. Food and hygiene products like toothpaste may have artificial sweeteners.


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