Artificial sweeteners: a growing environmental hazard

Illustrative photo from pixabay.com
Illustrative photo from pixabay.com

Recently an article "Oxidative degradation of emerging micropollutant acesulfame in aqueous matrices by UVA-induced H2O2/Fe2+ and S2O82-/Fe2+ processes" on the research of a group of TTÜ scientists was published in a prestigious peer reviewed journal Chemosphere.

According to one of the authors, PhD student Eneliis Kattel supervised by Senior Research Scientist Niina Dulova and Professor Marina Trapido from the research group of the Laboratory of Environmental Technology, the use of artificial sweeteners in the food and pharmaceutical industry has, in the last 5-6 years, led to explosive occurrence of artificial sweeteners in nature. The most common products that contain artificial sweeteners are still soft drinks, but sweeteners are increasingly being used also in sports drinks and in the so-called healthy snacks.

“When you use artificial sweeteners, for example the most widely used acesulfame, aspartame or sucralose, which are 200 to 600 times sweeter than table sugar, the brain gets a signal that the body receives sugar. The sweet taste triggers increased production of insulin, which in turn causes an increase in appetite; thus sweeteners may actually cause weight gain in the long run,” Eneliis Kattel explains.

Artificial sweeteners have a significant impact on our natural environment. These strong chemical compounds are not fully metabolized, e.g. in human body. The environment is not able to degrade these substances by itself due to their non-natural origin. Today’s traditional water treatment technologies are not able to remove these substances completely either.

Thus, sooner or later residues of artificial sweeteners are released into the environment, which then accumulate and decompose producing degradation products with various properties. Also, UVA radiation actively decomposes sweeteners. Sweetener residues are released into the environment mainly through domestic waste water, domestic waste and discarded pharmaceuticals.

“The first victims are evidently our aquatic organisms – first algae and water fleas, which have been found to be damaged by sweetener residues. They, in turn, have an impact on fish concerning which no long-term toxicity studies have been carried out yet. This, however, raises more and more questions about post-consumer compounds handling. Since the problem is still “new” in the time perspective of science, it is not possible to refer to studies directly concerning the impact of sweetener residues on the human organism. However, acesulfame, aspartame and sucralose have been found in the groundwater of developed countries in Europe. No long-term forecasts have been made yet, but current tendencies indicate that the problem is aggravating,” Kattel adds.

Additional information: Eneliis Kattel, eneliis.kattel@ttu.ee, TTÜ Department of Materials and Environmental Technology

Original post from Tallinn University of Technology