America's Artificial Sweetheart

By Renee Schettler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005

In less than six years on the market, yellow packets of sucralose--better known by the brand name Splenda No Calorie Sweetener--have edged out the pink packets of aspartame and blue packets of saccharin near coffee cups nationwide.

Splenda now enjoys a 51 percent market share among sugar substitutes in the United States. Its distinctive packets can be found at Starbucks and 7-Eleven stores. As an ingredient, it is listed on some 4,000 products, from breakfast cereals to Jamba Juice smoothies. And this spring, both Coca-Cola Inc. and PepsiCo will introduce versions of diet colas made with Splenda.

Manufacturers clamored for the product until the commotion incited rumors of shortages last fall. In September, Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking was released. It contains both sucralose and sugar (sucrose) and is designed to be used in recipes in place of sugar.

While artificial sweeteners have long generated controversy about the possible health implications of long-term usage, Splenda presents a new twist on the issue.

Its advertising campaign says the product is "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." The public seems to agree. But the slogan has been challenged by the Sugar Association, which represents the industry. The association asserts that the phrase misleads consumers into thinking the product is natural.

The Sugar Association filed a false advertising lawsuit in December against McNeil Nutritionals LLC, the Johnson & Johnson company that markets Splenda. Other lawsuits and complaints are pending. Earlier this month, McNeil retaliated with a court action for false advertising and deceptive trade practices to "stop them from continuing to make false and misleading claims about our brand," according to Monica Neufang, director of communications for McNeil.

True to its marketing claim--and unlike other artificial sweeteners--Splenda/sucralose does originate as a sugar molecule. It is produced by a patented process in which three of the hydroxyl (or hydrogen and oxygen) groups on the sugar molecule are replaced with three chlorine atoms. The result is an exceptionally stable molecule that withstands temperatures associated with heating, which makes it the only artificial sweetener that can be used in baking.

The molecule is also sufficiently strong to defy metabolizing by the body and, as a result, contains almost no calories (four per serving) and has no reported effect on blood-sugar levels. The Food and Drug Administration approved the product for general use in 1998. The FDA allows products with fewer than five calories to be labeled as no-calorie.

"We're not saying it's not safe at this point. That's not our issue," says Andy Briscoe, president and chief executive of the Sugar Association. His concern is to raise awareness and ensure accuracy in labeling.

Briscoe cited a recent poll from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that indicated more than 90 percent of consumers do not know that sucralose contains chlorine. "Consumers are paying a premium price for what they perceive is a different, and maybe in their mind, a healthier, product," Briscoe said.

A public opinion survey conducted last year by the center indicated only 57 percent of people who have tried Splenda understood that it was an artificial sweetener.

"Obviously, consumers are confused," Briscoe says.

Fully 84 percent of Americans consume low-calorie, reduced-sugar or sugar-free foods and beverages. Sugar has not quite 16 calories per teaspoon. This is roughly the number of calories burned by walking for less than two minutes.

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