A study led by North Carolina State University suggests that popular artificial sweetener sucralose may be genotoxic and cause adverse effects to the gut. The study’s researchers are calling for the safety and regulatory status of the chemical to be revisited, and encourage people to avoid products containing the sweetener.

Specifically, the researchers demonstrated the genotoxicity of sucralose-6-acetate, which is a compound produced in the gut after sucralose is consumed. Genotoxic substances cause damage to DNA, causing mutations which could lead to cancer or birth defects. Trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate were also found in sucralose samples from store shelves.

The study involved a series of in vitro experiments exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate and monitoring for markers of genotoxicity. The researchers observed sucralose-6-acetate’s ability to damage DNA in cells that were exposed to the compound.

Furthermore, the researchers found sucralose to cause “leaky gut,” meaning that the wall of the gut is permeable. This discovery was made because the researchers wanted to investigate sucralose’s effect on the gut, based on other studies demonstrating the sweetener’s adverse effects. When gut epithelial tissues, or the tissues that line the gut wall, were exposed to sucralose-6-acetate, the chemicals were seen damaging the “tight junctions,” or the points at which cells in the gut wall connect. Leaky gut may lead to substances that would normally be flushed out of the body through waste instead leaking out of the gut and into the bloodstream.

The researchers finally studied the genetic activity of the gut cells to see their response to the presence of sucralose-6-acetate. Cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate were found to have increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation, and carcinogenicity.