Artificial sweeteners may make your diet soda taste better, but they’re not disappearing when you drink them. We’re polluting the planet with these chemicals, and it’s affecting the biosphere. What chemical lessons can we learn from the past — and how can we avoid the same problems in the future?
Chemical Poisoning in Rome
The Roman Empire had significant technological sophistication for the time, but although the empire outlasted and assimilated culture after culture within its path of conquest, it also struggled with certain chemical aspects of technology.
This technological immaturity — making many advances without research into the long-term effects — resulted in metal intoxication and poisoning in Roman times.
Examining the bone fragments, artifacts, and manuscripts of well-known Roman authors of the time shows that metal poisoning occurred. Pliny the Elder writes of using lead in plumbing and sweetening, and the Roman vintner Columella discusses using lead as well. Unfortunately, their use of technology was shortsighted — they were unaware that they were poisoning themselves with the lead.
Western culture is modeled on Roman and Greek Civilization in many ways, and we appear to face similar problems, as we use toxic chemicals in our own day-to-day lives, and sweeten our foods and beverages containing even more chemicals, in the form of artificial sweeteners.
Artificial Sweeteners in the Biospheres
The volumes of artificial sweeteners in the biosphere are staggering. Among all pollutants, artificial sweeteners (AS) rank near the top of the heap. Whether the AS is sucralose, saccharin, or aspartame, human consumption of these sweeteners has come at a time when obesity is reaching epidemic proportions in westernized culture.
Evidence points to the use of artificial sweeteners as a causative factor for the obesity epidemic — so, is there a connection between environmental presence and human obesity? In short, have we affected our collective health with the expediency of sugarless drinks — and are there other effects that we just haven’t noticed yet? These questions are among many which environmental scientists must answer.
How Do Artificial Sweeteners Get Into the Biosphere?
Each day at sewage treatment facilities across the United States, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other organics – including artificial sweeteners – slip past the purification processes. The volume of organics has overwhelmed water treatment facilities.
Not only is the volume of artificial sweetener difficult to contain at the source, but artificial sweeteners pass through sewage treatment because of the way the molecules interact with water.
Artificial sweeteners appear infinitely miscible in water (they can mix with water in all proportions) –thus sewage treatment plants mistakenly pass them. There are, however, different amounts of artificial sweetener that pass depending upon whether the AS is sucralose, aspartame, or saccharin — with sucralose being the most porous and saccharin the least. As these stray molecules pass into the biosphere, they have initiated changes, including changes in proteins.
Artificial Sweeteners and Protein Molecules
Among the known effects of AS on the biosphere is their interference with protein molecules. Proteins are a part of all earthly life and play roles in maintaining healthy responses to environmental stressors. Like all molecules, proteins are three-dimensional objects, and in a living cell, water surrounds them.
Two distinct factor affect the shape of a protein: their innate chemical scaffolding or connectivity, and surrounding milieu. When the water components in the cell are changed, the three-dimensional shape of proteins may become altered.
Life’s molecules re-adapt to their molecular environment especially when something interferes with their watery solutions. In the unnatural environment of perturbed water, genetic-based disease is more likely. There are hundreds of protein-related diseases that range from cancer to psychiatric disorders.
Curbing the Use of Artificial Sweeteners
Surveying the literature reveals at least three natural replacements for artificial sweeteners: Stevia, Agave syrup, and Tagatose.
Stevia has garnered the most attention, and is found in many commercial products. While Agave syrup and Tagatose are less well-known, the two are actively studied with the hope of widespread utilization.
Agave syrup is derived from the Agave plant that is native to the South Western United States and Mexico; manufacturers use the syrup in the fermentation process to make Tequila, as well. Studies reveal Agave syrup to be rich in phytochemicals that are beneficial to its users. The specialized phytochemicals reportedly relieve stress and improve one’s overall health. We need further studies to quantify the beneficial substances.
Tagatose is a rare sugar that is derived from fructose and milk sugars (galactose). While it is rarely found milk products, it has been derived from naturally-occurring fungus from the sugar: psicose. Workers in South Korea are investigating the industrial feasibility of deriving a sweetener from fungus.
Perceptions of Sweetness
The sweetness values of Stevia, Agave, and Tagatose are greater than table sugar: sucrose. The main drawbacks of the new sugar replacements are at least two-fold: taste and cost-effectiveness. Sucrose is the gold-standard because of the public’s desire for sugar. It is a problem of perception.
Molecular receptors on the tongue govern the taste of sweetness – we also partially experience sweetness through smell; it has reportedly evolved from man’s early needs of hunting-and-gathering.
Whether we can effectively replace sugar (without harm to the environment) still remains in question. However, as long as we continue to desire sugar in our diet, we remain hostage to our early hunter-gatherer perceptions of sweetness.