A Spoonful Of Sugar Helps The Vapor Go Down

Sweetening your DIY mixes

Should we vape Sugar?

The answer is probably not. Unfortunately for us vapers there are some flavoring manufacturers (cough, cough, Flavor West, cough) who actively add fructose, sugar syrup, and caramel coloring (which yes it’s literal heat treated carbohydrates to create the color) to their flavorings which mixers and even manufacturers are using to create e-liquids.

I get it. As most of us are ex-smokers we all tend to hate when someone tells us not to do something because it is bad for us. We tend to snub our noses up at it like it’s nonsense with a “I do what I want” attitude.  Sure, you can vape those liquids. You can mix with those flavorings. I’m not here to tell you not to do something you want to do, only here to tell you why you may want to consider not doing it of your own choice.  I choose not to use these flavorings. They cause me noticeable health reactions in terms of almost instant wheezing. I know FW yellow cake tastes amazing, but it’s really not so great to be inhaling. If you suffer with allergies, asthma, or COPD, vaping flavorings that contain sugar additives may cause you the same tightness in your chest and wheezing problems I have.  If you aren’t bothered by these things you may still want to consider limiting use or stopping use of those flavorings or e-juices that contain them as there could potentially be long term health effects we are not aware of right now.

Why shouldn't we vape sugar?

Before I get into the heavier sciency stuff, let’s look at the obvious reasons why using sugars in vaping and our mixes can have a negative effect on our enjoyment of vaping.  The first thing that using flavorings with added sugars causes is a constant buildup of carbon gunk on our coils and turns cotton black.  This is not a positive thing in terms of cost effectiveness — constantly changing prebuilt coils out — or the time spent building new coils or rewicking. More than likely you are mixing your own e-liquids as a way to save some money on vaping, so constantly changing coils isn’t helping you save money in the long run.

The second negative effect that many people experience is harsh juices — which can result in irritation of the throat or chest tightness. In some cases like mine wheezing and nasal swelling.

The last obvious thing is the general burnt tastes you get pretty quickly as gunk builds up on your coils and the general dryness of the vapor experience. None of these things are pleasant when we’re flavor chasers looking to create awesome tasting juice.

Now for the sciency stuff: There are not a lot of studies that have been done on inhaling the vapors/smoke from burning sugar.  There is some information relating back to tests done on tobacco cigarettes and the effects of adding sugars to them and there are environmental studies that have been done on pollution from burning sugarcane fields. But, there is very little that has actually been done on inhaling sugar heated to the point of vaporizing.

Sucrose is not absorbed by the lung tissue.  However, glucose and fructose are absorbed into the lung tissue. This is something to remember for those of you who are diabetics, though it shouldn’t increase your blood sugar significantly, it is something to be aware of.

Possible things that may be associated with or enhanced by sugar heated to the temps we are vaping at may be:

  • Acrolein
  • Acetaldehydes
  • Formaldehyde
  • 2-butanone,
  • isoprene,
  • benzene,
  • toluene,
  • benzo[k]fluoranthene
  • Furfural
  • Hydroxymethylfurfural

The possible creation or enhancing of these chemicals in tobacco being combusted doesn’t necessarily mean that they are present in e-liquid due to sugar. There in the studies on air pollution of sugarcane field burning it also pointed to some of these chemicals being in the air as well. Could sugars enhance or react in our e-liquid when vaped at temps from 200F to 600F?  It is unclear. It’s possible that some sugar presence has been part of the culprit in some of these e-cig studies that have shown things likes Acrolein and Formaldehyde along with abusing the equipment in ways vapers don’t vape. Fructose and Sucrose presence may also enhance those types of molecules in that may already be present from the use of VG and PG. But this is all speculation on my part and I don’t claim to be a chemist, I may be completely wrong in terms of the part that sugars may play, but it is very evident that sugar containing flavorings contribute to a large portion of the carbon buildup on coils, so if there is carbon there are some of the possible carcinogenic molecules likely to be being released into the aerosol as we vape.

gunk-coils-2

Photo Credit: Roger Malmedal — FW Yellow Cake Gunk (Used under Creative Commons with attribute given.)

 

If you’re a researcher looking to study something concerning e-cigarettes, the results of sugar present in the flavorings compared to non-sugared flavorings would be a great study to produce that would help the flavoring and vaping industry understand the safety levels of these components in the flavorings.

Sucralose Sweeteners In Our Mixes

When it comes to what seems to be the most popular sweetener in e-liquid is sucralose. It is a non-caloric version of sucrose. If you understand what the molecule of sucrose looks like, there are three oxygen atoms that during the process of creating sucralose are scrubbed from the sucrose molecule and replaced with Chlorine atoms.  This gives sucralose it’s inability to be metabolized by the body as a carbohydrate and mostly passes through the digestive system unabsorbed. What little is absorbed by the body finds it’s way through to the kidneys and is excreted through urination.

So how does that translate into how sucralose performs in a vape? For the most part, it is a completely unknown as to how vaporized sucralose actually reacts in the lungs. Does it absorb or is it excreted back out in mucus? No studies on this at all (again researchers good idea for a research project.)

We do have evidence that sucralose, much like the fructose and sucrose containing flavorings, also causes excessive carbon buildup on coils. Though the greatest of build up happens when sucralose is paired with sucrose or fructose containing flavorings, however there is carbon build up when sucralose is used with non-sucrose containing flavorings as well.

Photo provided by {name withheld for shame over the state of that coil.}

As we can see by the first picture, there is a significant amount of carbon build up after a moderate amount of use of blended flavors and sucralose based sweetener. This is a mild build up. I have seen some way worse, with carbon build up completely coating the coils and blackening the cotton.  Where there is carbon build up there is likely to be carcinogens being released, just like burnt food, and burning tobacco. However, this is only mild gunking with just sucralose use, it is far worse when sucralose is combined with fructose or sugar containing flavorings.

Sucralose and sugars aren’t the only things that contribute to carbon buildup on coils. Using either of those types of ingredients with Ethyl Maltol, Ethyl Vanillin, Vanillin, along with the diketones – Diacetyl, Acetyl Propionyl, and Acetoin can contribute to the increase in carbon buildup on coils.

Adding EM, EV, or straight Vanillin to recipes that do not contain sucralose or sugars does appear to only contribute minorly to carbon residue on coils. So as contributing factors on their own, they may not be a serious issue in mixing or by being present in flavorings themselves.

This is a picture of my coil in my Aeronaut atomizer. I have been vaping only FlavourArt and Flavorah flavors for the past 6 weeks.  This build is 6 weeks, maybe even 7 weeks at this point old. I don’t fully dry burn to glowing red, I only heat it up and give it a quick wipe with a paper towel covered in a bit of plain VG, just to clear away any carbon residue that might be there.

I haven’t cleaned this coil in about a week, so this is a week’s worth of buildup using these two brands of flavoring. The cotton is only about 24 hours old since I changed flavors.  My cotton is rarely darker than a slight tanned color just under the coil.  I’ve even been using Flavorah’s Sweetness in many of the recipes I’ve been vaping lately, and carbon build up hasn’t been a problem, but we’ll discuss alternative sweeteners in the next section.

As for sucralose, how much you use of it will definitely determine how much carbon buildup happens on your coils.  TFA’s sweetener has the least amount of sucralose of all of them, with only 5% Sucralose mixed with 5% Maltol. The rest of the sweetener is made up of water and PG. The Maltol gives their sweetener a bit of a caramel note as well.  FW’s sweetener is 10% sucralose. Cap’s Super Sweet is 20% sucralose, but unlike TFA and FW, CAP’s also contains Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate.

The additional acids and preservatives of CAP’s Super Sweet actually causes it to be a dry sweetener, it also may be the cause of chest tightness, coughing, and throat irritation in many people.  There are also no studies on inhalation of these preservatives either, so for the safety minded sweetener lovers, Cap’s super sweet may be the worst choice of the various sweeteners.

If you want to use sucralose in your recipes the best options may be TFA’s or FW’s, or mixing your own with pure sucralose either in distilled water or PG or a combo of the two or even a mixture of distilled water and VG, if you’d prefer to not add PG to your juice.  Melt the sucralose crystals in the warmed distilled water first, make sure not to oversaturate the water (meaning you don’t want crystals floating on the bottom) and then add the water to your PG or VG.  You can melt the crystals directly into PG or VG by warming them, however it melts better in PG than it does VG, so water is generally recommended for VG use.  Creating your own sucralose mix will result in a much higher concentration of sucralose in your blend so you will have to adjust your amounts used in recipes accordingly.

Is sucralose use totally bad and should we avoid it? Well it really is up to each individual mixer as to their desired level of safety.  Sucralose is not likely to be safe for constant inhalation and and likely does contribute to adding small amount so of carcinogenic molecules to the aerosol.  But sweetness does work wonders in recipes and the perceptions of flavorings. Use it as an effect in recipes and not as the centerpiece of a juice (like many commercial juices do.) There is nothing wrong with making sweet juices, but if you don’t want to use sucralose to create sweetness in your mixes, we will go over alternatives next. If you are like me, sucralose causes throat irritation and chest tightness. I can’t use it. So the following alternatives may be better suited if you are unable to use sucralose.

The Alternative Sweeteners

Sugar Alcohols

Erythritol — It is 60% – 70% sweeter than sucrose.  It is also a pretty heat stable with it’s boiling point up in the 600 F degrees (a bit over that temp.) Does it sweeten e-liquid like sucralose? Not so much.  It works for light sweetener, especially with fruits, but at the percentages you’d need of the VG based sweetener (as the powder does not dissolve in PG) for bakery style recipes you end up getting muting effects.  Using about 1-2% of it though with candy or fruit it adds a nice clean sweetness that can boost the flavorings without causing significant carbon buildup on coils. It does appear to be dangerous to cat.

Xylitol  — This is another sweetener that has been making the rounds in e-liquid mixing.  Is it safe to use? We don’t really know the inhalation risks on this sugar alcohol either. It does appear to be used in some nasal sprays and does show some antibacterial properties so it may not be horrible to be inhaled.  It can cause some carbon buildup on coils when used at higher concentrations. It is also lethal to dogs. It can be purchased in powder form here.

Maltitol  — The last type of sugar alcohol that has been used in e-liquid mixing. Like the others it can be purchased in powder form and dissolved in 120F degree PG. The Flash Point of Maltitol is really high, being 807 F degrees. Boiling point is ridiculously high at 1451.3 F degrees.  As with all of the sugar alcohols it is a sweetener that is far less likely to cause carbon buildup. Maltitol is a bit sweeter than both of the other two with a 75% to 90% sweeter level than sucrose. Could it cause inhalation irritation.

Other Sweeteners

Stevia — There are various versions of this floating around being used for e-liquid sweetening. Some have been made into sweeteners for sale at some of the DIY vendor sites, and even Flavorah’s Sweetness is a Stevia derived type of sweetener though it specially formulated to remove almost all of the bitter licorice aftertaste that is associated with straight stevia powder.  You can purchase super concentrated organic powder though working with it is tricky as to getting the amount needed in the PG and ultimately how much to use in a mix before you get an intense aftertaste.  It might even be better to mix a small amount stevia with one of the sugar alcohols rather than on its own.  I personally like the formulation that Flavorah has with their proprietary blend and to save time I’ve taken to using their sweetener over all others.

There are differences in Stevia too, you can have full straight Stevia, or one of the various glucoside compounds of the rebaudiana A – E components.  Using these isolated versions like Reb A is thought to reduce the overall bitterness of whole stevia compound. However, experimenting with the compounds tends to get more expensive than the average mixer is going to want to spend, as some of the compounds are only available through high priced chemical suppliers and may even be too hard to get a hold of for the average at home mixer.  If you are into the deeper DIY aspects it may be a sweetener experiment you might want to play with.

Thaumatin — This sweetener has yet to come to market in the US, though it can be found in the UK sold as bait sweetener for making your own fishing lures. It is apparently upwards of 3000 times sweeter than sucrose and may have future applications in e-liquid once it enters the market in the US.  It seems to be on hold at the moment, as talk about it as a new sweetener started back in 2008 and hasn’t really been updated since 2012. The only way to currently buy it in the US is if you have a business account registered with some of the chemical supply vendors. The average person can’t get a hold of this chemical unless you buy it from the UK as bait sweetener, and then I’m not sure what might else be in it and if it is even remotely safe to be vaped as it is a protein based sweetener.

The safety level of inhaling these other types of sweeteners is unknown.  I do know stevia bases sweeteners do take a little longer to develop sweetness in the mix (getting sweeter over weeks of steeping) but they do not present any carbon buildup on coils when used at levels below 1% (which seems to be about the limit depending on the dilution level where you won’t get the stevia aftertaste.) The sugar alcohols also seem to be free of carbon buildup as well.  As a sensitive person who can’t tolerate sucralose use as it is too much of an inhalation irritant for me, I am able to use sugar alcohols and stevia without any inhalation irritation. Does that translate into safety? No. But for me if I want a sweetened juice I will use a sweetener that doesn’t cause throat constricting and chest tightening or headache causing, so the alternative sweeteners are my choice for sweetening my recipes.  They do lack the punch you in the face, sugar on your lips feeling that sucralose at higher concentrations (the 10% and 20% mixtures) leave with e-liquids that contain it. So, if that is the sweetening level you are looking for and can tolerate it, sucralose is what you are looking for.

So Should We Mixers Use Sweeteners?

This is a choice individual mixers have to make for themselves.  Yes, there may be safety concerns which is something you have to consider in your decision. How much risk are you willing to take for a sweet effect and how much risk is really possible? We don’t have the answer to how much risk yet, as more testing needs to be done on what chemicals are possibly released during atomization and heating. We can summize that if carbon is being built up, then there is likely some small risks associated with inhaling burnt substances. The less build up the possibly safer it may be.

Some mixers when starting out completely avoid the sweetener aspect because there is a lot of demonizing of sweeteners in the mixing community due to the levels of sweetener used in many commercial juices.  But sweetener doesn’t have to be a main event in a recipe, it can be used as an enhancer, as an additive, at sub 1% levels giving you just enough perceivable sweetness to enhance the flavorings you are using.  Using sugar containing flavorings and sucralose will result in the largest risk in mixing, but that is something you have to decide for yourself.  As a mixer, I don’t use sugar containing flavorings, which is why you don’t see Flavor West flavorings in my recipes. Many flavorings from Capellas may also contain sucralose as well, like their Sweet line. Adding extra sucralose to those flavorings can up your levels to beyond just enhancement level.

Some flavors are naturally associated with in our brains with sweetness, like if you eat a raw strawberry compared to a strawberry dipped in sugar, they taste totally different. How the flavoring is designed and what your intention for the flavor profile is will dictate if you will need some sort of sweetening agent to achieve the profile. This is something to think about during recipe development.

It is up to you as a mixer to decide when and if you are going to use sweetener. Don’t follow the crowd, do your own thing and try different approaches to see what works best for you, because it’s all about what YOU want out of your Do It Yourself mixes.

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Featured photo credit: wuestenigel Macro of Decoration Crystals via photopin (license)

5 Comments

    • Yes they do. I do recommend everyone check The Perfumers Apprentice website for their MSDS and SDS sheets to check what is in the flavorings that might be of concern, like caramel coloring. Flavor West also has their own sheets on their website. FLavourArts are located on the US website, and FLavorah’s has their testing results published on their site as well.

  1. Good article, thanks! I don’t generally use added sweetener when I mix (though I do occasionally use some flavors that have added sucralose- I try to avoid sucrose/fructose.) For the most part that’s fine with me, but there is the occasional recipe where I’d like the brightness of a bit of sweetener. I guess I’ll give the FLV Sweetness a try- it’s a bit expensive for a sweetener, but I suppose in the grand scheme of things it’s pretty insignificant.

    Btw, I’m wondering if there might be a mistake in this line: “you don’t water crystals floating on the bottom.” If there are the water is probably a bit colder than it should ideally be ;). I don’t normally point out typos, etc., cause it’s kind of obnoxious, but in this case it goes to the meaning of the sentence (unless I’m somehow misunderstanding, which is entirely possible.)

    • Thanks Tagore… That line was wrong, I fixed it. It was supposed to say (you don’t want) not water.

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