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How Far from Sugar Is Splenda?

By Pallavi Gogoi "Think sugar, say Splenda," is the catchy advertising slogan for this no-calorie tabletop sweetener. Splenda has been so successful that in just four years it has captured more than 50% of the $1 billion artificial-sweetener market in the U.S., nudging aside market leaders NutraSweet and Equal.

Splenda, or sucralose as it's known in the industry, is also found in some low-calorie sodas, such as C2 from Coca-Cola (KO), Edge from Pepsi (PEP), and upwards of 4,000 packaged-food products. An additional advantage for Splenda: Unlike aspartame (the key ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet), this additive retains its taste when heated.

Now a host of lawsuits from rivals and individuals questions whether Splenda can really claim that it's made from sugar since the final product is several steps removed from its natural form.

CONFUSING CONSUMERS? Merisant, maker of NutraSweet and Equal; the Sugar Assn., an industry trade group; and at least three individuals have filed separate suits challenging how Splenda is marketed. They claim that marketing by McNeil Nutritionals, the division of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) that distributes Splenda in the U.S., "confuses" the public. They alleged that Splenda is actually a highly processed chemical sweetener, created with chlorine and other compounds.

"Splenda misleads consumers into believing that it's made from natural sugar when it's not," says Jeff Leshay, a spokesman for Merisant. The individuals, Peggy Patton and Marc Backer from California and Bobby Allen Green from Florida have filed separate class actions against McNeil.

Splenda's maker, Britain's Tate & Lyle (TATYY) says sucralose is derived from sugar (see BW Online, 1/19/05, "It's Not All Sweetness for Splenda"). Ferne Hudson, spokesperson for Tate & Lyle explains: "Sucralose is a sugar molecule with three of the hydroxyl groups replaced with chlorine atoms."

FDA O.K. Merisant's lawsuit states, and Hudson confirms, that sucralose is a compound derived from sugar. And the little yellow sachets that are sold for table-top use also contain dextrose, a simple form of sugar, and maltodextrin, a digestible carbohydrate made from natural corn starch.

The lawsuits don't question Splenda's safety, but others have wondered whether something with so many chemicals in it is safe for long-term heavy use. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has approved Splenda and other sugar substitutes as safe for human consumption. The agency O.K.'d the sale of aspartame in 1981 and sucralose in 1998.

Some consumer groups are convinced none of the sugar substitutes are safe and that NutraSweet suing Splenda is "like the pot calling the kettle black," scoffs Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible International, a group that warns about the alleged dangers of aspartame. Martini says some studies conducted in the 1970s showed that aspartame caused brain tumors in laboratory animals.

Indeed, the FDA had in 1979 set up a public board of inquiry to review the scientific data on aspartame. The board, worried about the brain tumors, recommended further study. But the FDA, after additional evaluation from its own scientists, approved aspartame in 1981.

MORE INFO COMING? The controversy didn't die down, and in 1996 the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology again alluded to the possible link, citing an increase in brain tumors after aspartame was approved. Soon after that article, the FDA released another statement that it stands behind its approval decision.

If the lawsuits against Splenda end up in open court, it could lead to more scrutiny of artificial sweeteners, and more information about their safety might become available to the general public. The courts could then answer whether these products are really as harmful as some detractors, such as Russell L. Blaylock, a neurosurgeon based in Ridgeland, Miss., has argued. Blaylock is the author of several books including Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills, and he warns against the heavy use of Splenda.

And Splenda's maker vigorously defends the product's safety and also its right to market the substitute as a derivative of sugar. What do rivals say? See ya in court. Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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