Chemicals that make our diet soda and foods taste sweeter may be souring the environment. A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has found that artificial sweeteners aren’t being removed during wastewater treatment, and they’re showing up in rivers, lakes, and even tap water.
Researchers took water samples from 10 wastewater treatment plants, four rivers, and nine lakes in Switzerland and tested them for the presence of four artificial sweeteners: acesulfame K (sold under the brand name Sunett), sucralose (sold as Splenda), saccharin (used in Sweet’N Low), and cyclamate (which is banned in the U.S. but still used in Europe). Acesulfame K was the most prevalent, cropping up in 65 percent of their water samples, and along with sucralose, it was detected in treated wastewater in concentrations equal to those found in untreated wastewater. The scientists also tested wastewater sludge to see if those same sweeteners degraded after seven hours. They didn’t. Finally, the researchers gathered samples of tap water in Zurich, which draws its water from many of the groundwater sources tested, and found acesulfame in the tap water as well.
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Whether it’s artificial sweeteners or the pharmaceuticals and personal-care product chemicals that have been detected in American waterways, the synthetic substances we use every day don’t simply disappear when we chug a diet soda, flush a toilet, or take a shower. And we don’t know yet what impact these pseudosugars will have on our waterways, although a prior study on the prevalence of sucralose in rivers and lakes suggests that it could interfere with some organisms’ feeding habits. Artificial sweeteners also aren’t currently included in tests used by water filter manufacturers, so you may just have to accept that even filtered tap water may start tasting a little sweeter.
Here are a few ways to cut down on your exposure to chemical sweeteners:
• Go natural. Rather than use artificial sweeteners to cut your calorie intake, use fruits and herbs to make your own “diet soda.” Our Nickel Pincher columnist recently offered quite a few recipes for satisfying summer drinks. And make sure what you drink most is water, with brewed teas and low-fat dairy products your second most frequent choice.
• Read labels. Artificial sweeteners are used in everything from drinks to low-calorie bread loaves to toothpastes. Keep an eye out for acesulfame K (also listed as acesulfame potassium), saccharin, and sucralose. Aspartame, another artificial sweetener commonly used in diet sodas, wasn’t included in this study because it, previous research has found, biodegrades pretty quickly into the environment.