The battle for conquest of the sweetness receptors on our taste buds is a vicious one. It is being fought in supermarket aisles, in restaurants, and increasingly, in courtrooms. The brutal conflict pits the sugar industry, and its “natural sweetener,” against artificial sweetener interests and their low calorie products. At stake are billions of dollars in profits, and according to some, the health of the public. Both sides sponsor umbrella organizations to further their cause. The Sugar Association’s mission is to “promote the consumption of sugar as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle through the use of sound science and research.” The Calorie Control Council claims essentially the same mandate, but of course on behalf of the diet product industry. There are some curious bedfellows here, since low calorie sweeteners also tangle with each other for market share, with producers of sucralose and aspartame commonly sniping at each other. For the public, it’s an unhappy situation. But the lawyers reap profits. Those of you who have followed my writings, lectures or media presentations over the years will know that I am no great fan either of artificial sweeteners or sugar-laden foods. But I am a fan of good science, and I resent the cherry picking of data and the use of misleading terminology to further any cause. And there is plenty of both in the sweetener wars.
Currently, the most intense battle is between the sugar industry and manufacturers of sucralose, commonly sold as Splenda. Ever since its introduction in 2000, sucralose has been taking a bite out of sugar profits and has managed to relegate aspartame, the artificial sweetener that once dominated the market, to second place. Sucralose is synthesized from sugar through a series of chemical reactions that replace three of the eleven oxygen atoms in the molecule with atoms of chlorine. Capitalizing on the fact that the raw material for the production of sucralose is sugar, Splenda built an advertising campaign around the phrase, “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” Both the sugar and aspartame producers took issue with this slogan and launched law suits claiming the advertising was misleading. There are two problems with Splenda’s original slogan. First, “so it tastes like sugar” does not logically follow from “made from sugar.” Once the molecular composition of sugar has been altered, the properties of the new material do not necessarily bear any similarity to the properties of the starting material. It would be ludicrous to say, for example, that since hypochlorous acid can be made by replacing an atom of hydrogen in water with one of chlorine, its properties are those of water. Second, “made from sugar,” suggests a closer connection with sugar than actually exists. Since many people, albeit wrongly, believe that natural products are always safer than synthetics, an association with “natural” sugar is useful for marketing purposes. Sucralose has an excellent safety profile, but that has nothing to do with its being made from sugar. It has to do with the extensive testing that was carried out before approval and with the scarcity of adverse reactions that have been reported. Although McNeil Nutritionals, the manufacturer of Splenda, maintains that its advertising is honest, the company did agree to an out-of-court settlement with Merisant, the company that markets aspartame under the trade name Equal. The battle with the Sugar Association, on the other hand, continues. And it is a dirty one. An Association sponsored website, “The Truth About Splenda,” aims to present sucralose in a most unfavourable light and invites consumers to submit their comments about the sweetener. Surprise, surprise, the comments are all bitter. They are, however, worth reading, because they do offer an insight into the chillingly poor state of scientific knowledge among the public. Let me take an example. A consumer writes: “I was appalled that a product sold as made from sugar is actually made from chlorine. Would you put bleach into your coffee? Well, using Splenda, that is actually what you are doing.” Actually, you are doing nothing of the sort. True, both bleach and Splenda do contain chlorine atoms, but they are completely different substances. The use of chlorine in the production of sucralose has no bearing on the safety of the product.
Another correspondent is “heartsick to find out that Splenda contains chlorine.” Would he be also heartsick to find out that the hydrochloric acid in his stomach, critical for digestion, also contains chlorine? One more. “I never used sugar substitutes because I didn’t want to put chemicals in my body. I started to use Splenda because it was made from sugar. Now I find out it contains chlorine. This false advertising needs to stop.” Well, if you don’t want to put chemicals into your body, you’ll be dining on a vacuum. It isn’t very nutritious. And what is the false advertising? Not disclosing the molecular composition of Splenda? Nonsense. Asking that chlorine be listed as an ingredient, as an other writer demands, is absurd. As absurd as asking that hydrogen be listed as an ingredient if water is present. While Splenda’s advertising can be justifiably criticized, how about the Sugar Association’s own tagline? “Sugar: sweet by nature.” Doesn’t that imply that sugar is safe because it is natural? Botulin is made by nature, but I sure wouldn’t want to eat it. Sugar is “safe” not because it is natural, but because research and epidemiological evidence have shown it to be so. More or less. It isn’t particularly safe for diabetics, and it plays a role in tooth decay. There is even suspicion that fructose, one of the components of sugar, may be linked with alarming changes in body fat and insulin sensitivity. We haven’t seen the end of the sweetener battles. In fact they are revving up. A study at Duke University, funded by the Sugar Association claims to have found a reduction in beneficial gut bacteria and an increase in drug-metabolizing enzymes when rats are fed doses of sucralose comparable to human intake. This flies in the face of numerous other studies that have shown sucralose to be totally safe in rodents. Needless to say, McNeil Nutritionals claims to have found holes in what it calls the “Sugar Association-funded” study. I’m not sure yet what to make of the research, but one does wonder whether it would have seen the light of day had it found no problems with Splenda. My bottom line to all of this is that both low calorie sweeteners and sugar are fine when used in moderation. But as far as the sweetener salvos go, there’s no end in sight. And the public is caught in the crossfire.