Artificial sweetener sucralose – marketed under the brand name Splenda – may not be harmless at all, according to a new study in Italy.

Researchers from the Ramazzini Institute have found that Splenda substantially raised the risk of leukemia and other cancers.

Splenda hit the market in the 1990s as an alternative to white sugar and other artificial sweeteners that have been linked to health issues. In 2013, it was downgraded from a "safe" to "caution" standing because of earlier research also from the Ramazzini Institute.

The new study, discussed in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, gave 457 male mice, along with 396 female mice, different levels of sucralose, as added to their food from 12 days of gestation until they died.

The team saw an overall increased rate of malignant cancer in male mice as Splenda amounts increased in the diets. The researchers also detected a substantially higher incidence of leukemia in the male rodents whose dose levels of sucralose reached 2,000 to 16,000 ppm.

According to the authors, the results do not back up previous findings that sucralose remains "biologically inert."

"More studies are necessary to show the safety of sucralose, including new and more adequate carcinogenic bioassay on rats," they wrote, emphasizing the need for follow-up studies given the sucralose intake of millions worldwide.

Even less intake poses a problem, added scientist Lisa Lefferts of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A substance that leads to cancer at high doses can also do so at lower doses, only with a smaller risk, she said.

In a statement, Heartland Food Products, the makers of Splenda refuted the study claims, calling the institute's body of research unreliable and with an unconventional design that does not adhere to internationally recognized standards.

The company asserted that sucralose has been studied extensively, with over 100 studies performed over a two-decade period.

"Extensive research strongly supports that sucralose is safe for everyone and does not cause cancer," the statement read.

CSPI said that the only long-term feeding studies on the artificial sweetener in animals, prior to the Italian study, were conducted by Splenda's previous makers, Johnson & Johnson. At present, CSPI has given other artificial sweeteners saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium an "avoid" grading.

Sucralose is around 600 times sweeter than sucrose or table sugar, and about three times as sweet as aspartame. It is commonly added to certain foods and beverages, such as diet soft drinks, to replace sugar.

Photo: Sonny Abesamis | Flickr

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