Sickeningly Sweet

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There is a great interest in mitigating the health hazards of sugar, leading to the trend of utilizing artificial sweeteners to replace this prolific ingredient in foods and beverages. However, the use of artificial sweeteners has been under scrutiny for its potential to cause cancer. This debate has been ongoing for decades in animal models and more recently, clinical studies. Current evidence appears inconclusive. However, the health related impacts of artificial sweeteners are not what have been making headlines late this summer.

Beyond the health controversies, a subtle truth is arising – artificial sweeteners can now be found in city waste water entering natural water systems. Studies have been conducted through the Grand River Watershed which includes city hubs such as Kitchener-Waterloo Region, Guelph, and Brantford in Southern Ontario. This was chosen as a field site because of the human impact on this natural system as well as the fact that it is the largest watershed in Ontario.

Artificial sweeteners were quantified in water samples at various locations in a river or groundwater system. The concentrations can be used to confirm the location where waste water enters a water system as well as the direction of water flow. Moreover, the transportation of waste water can be described generally by the artificial sweetener plume. This generalization can be made because the concentrations of artificial sweeteners are predictable – they do not degrade easily and are considered to have a high persistence.

Now that artificial sweeteners have been identified as a tracer, other organic chemicals entering water systems can be compared. For example, the concentrations of an emerging contaminant could be described as a ratio to the known concentrations of artificial sweeteners. If this ratio is maintained along a river system, this would provide evidence that the emerging contaminant may be persistent.

With all this said, at current concentrations, artificial sweeteners found in water systems are not believed to be harmful to one’s health. Instead, perhaps we should investigate further the many other anthropogenic and natural chemicals that are being added to fresh water daily, using artificial sweeteners as a guide.

Read the research paper here: Plos, 2013, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0082706

Spoelstra, J., Schiff, S.L., and Brown, S.J. (2013). Artificial Sweeteners in a Large Canadian River Reflect Human Consumption in the Watershed. Plos

Adelle has received her B.Sc. in Integrated Science with Biochemistry. Through her studies gained a reputation as an ideas person, an encourager to her peers, and a hard worker. She aims to continue exploring, innovating, and inventing at every opportunity that arises.


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