Splenda (sucralose) has overtaken Equal (aspartame) in the artificial sweetener market thanks to a marketing campaign that claims Splenda is closely related to sugar and is by implication safer and less artificial. Splenda’s slogan “Made from Sugar. So it tastes like sugar.” can be found on every packet and appears in every ad. But that claim is misleading and was even the subject of a highly publicized lawsuit. Should advertisers be permitted to take advantage of gullible consumers by making misleading claims, even if those claims are based on truth?
Those who express a preference for Splenda over other artificial sweeteners believe that Splenda is derived from real sugar and is therefore likely to be more natural, safer, or better tasting. Not surprisingly those ideas stem mostly from the company’s marketing campaign. Some quick fact-checking reveals that those claims are both based on true facts and are intentionally misleading. The success of this product is an example of savvy marketers taking advantage of gullible consumers. And by gullible, I don’t mean stupid. I’m including most people, those like myself and my friends who shouldn’t be expected to research every detail of every claim made by every product. We prefer to trust that advertisers will only go so far in stretching the truth, and that the checks and balances of the legal system and the government are enough to keep marketers on their toes. What makes this case so interesting is that those checks were not enough, and an unscrupulous marketing campaign succeeded in bamboozling the public.
McNeil Nutritionals and the chemists who designed Splenda (originally intended as an insecticide) knew very well that the link to sugar was both valuable and misleading. In fact, the original slogan included a few more words “But it’s not sugar.” However, with that simple added dose of truth on every packet, the product did not sell well. It only took off after they removed those words. Clearly the company had a tough decision, perhaps too tough, fail with too much truth, or succeed wildly with just a bit less. It might be a good example of why we need strong oversight by impartial well-informed regulators. Others might believe in a literal version of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). I’m not on that side in this case, but I understand it, and I accept that many free-market proponents feel strongly that only the market should decide what’s right or wrong, particularly in cases where no direct fraud or lies are involved. You can decide for yourself, but here are some things to consider.
Made from sugar? So it tastes like sugar?
Technically, the manufacturing of Splenda does begin with pure cane sugar (sucrose). But the sugar that is used in the process is entirely destroyed during manufacturing, chemically destroyed so that it is no longer sugar. Sugar is not an ingredient in the product at all, and by law they cannot claim that it is. The company has patented several alternate ways to manufacture Splenda that do not even involve sugar, but still result in the identical product. One might then ask why sugar is still used to make Splenda. I don’t know the answer. It may simply be the cheapest way. But if it was not, we could certainly imagine that it would continue to be used, if only to protect the marketing claims.
In terms of chemical structure, Splenda (sucralose) is similar to sugar. As you can see in the diagram, you can convert sugar into Splenda simply by replacing three hydroxide ions (HO) with Chlorine ions (Cl). To us non-chemists, this makes Splenda and sugar appear almost the same. But it’s misleading because we’re dealing with basic chemistry where the smallest change can make a world of difference. Remember from high school that the difference between water and flammable hydrogen gas is just one Oxygen atom. Or consider that you can create deadly Chlorine gas (Cl2) from Splenda simply by replacing the Oxygen and Hydroxide ions with Chlorine ions! Would it be ethical to market “Deadly poison made from Splenda. So it tastes like sugar.”?
A senior editor of the journal Nature summarizes the reaction by chemists:
This is the kind of advertising campaign that makes most chemists cringe, and – though this may sound like a petty dispute between two rival companies – I think we need to hold companies accountable for exploiting the general public’s lack of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately many people will think: Splenda is not sugar, but it is made from sugar – so it must be safe, right? (Wasn’t palytoxin made from sugar?) Though this sort of ad campaign wouldn’t work on many scientists, it certainly worked on the general public: “sales of Splenda were weak in 2001, when McNeil launched an ad campaign saying the sweetener is made from sugar and including the phrase ‘but it’s not sugar.'” Since then, “Splenda has eclipsed Equal in the lucrative artificial sweeteners market” – and it’s not like Merisant can counter with an ad campaign, saying that Aspartame’s “made from phenylalanine, so it tastes like phenylalanine”…
One example of a chemist’s reaction can be found here.
And as often happens, it’s not just the ignorance of those who buy into the advertising claims that worries scientists. The ultra-cynical, alarmists, and conspiratorial-minded also feed on ignorance. This process of replacing OH’s with Cl’s creates what are called Chlorocarbons which is what Splenda is. And one of the reasons that some people consider Splenda a potential danger is that many other Chlorocarbons are poisonous and sometimes disastrous to humans. Those include Chloriform, DDT (the banned pesticide), and the poisonous Trichloroethane. So far, after much testing, safety concerns of Splenda remain unfounded.
But the important point is that it’s not much more valid to assume based only on chemical structure that Splenda is safe or tastes like sugar, than it is to believe it’s toxic and doesn’t taste like sugar. Both lines of reasoning are questionable without evidence to back them up. But there’s one that we want to believe, and clever marketers have used it to their advantage. The other scares us and gives ammunition to alarmists. From the experts’ viewpoint, consumers need reliable information to make informed decisions, and that information should be based on evidence rather than what sells. Advertisers whose products stand to affect the diets and health of millions of consumers should be held to the highest standards of integrity. Naturally, conscientious scientists are always concerned when scientific information resulting from their efforts are undermined on such a large scale in the name of greed.
Controversy and lawsuit
The Food and Drug Administration regulates nutritional advertising to a certain extent. But there are always loopholes and uncharted territory. In those cases, whether we like it or not, our system tends to rely on the courts, and lawyers, and lawsuits to expose the truth and punish wrongdoers. In this case, Merisant, the makers of rival Nutrasweet (aspartame) sued McNeil Nutritionals, the makers of Splenda, for damages contending deceptive advertising. The suit was settled in June 2007 without a trial for an undisclosed amount rumored to be about $30 million dollars. No further action seems to have been taken by the FDA or congress. So it appears that this type of deception worked, was well worth the cost, and will continue to be a standard part of doing business in this country.