Sugar industry and Splenda embark on new battle

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Splenda, Sucralose, Advertising

The US sugar industry has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) against the popular sweetener product Splenda,
which it claims is deceptively marketed to make consumers believe
it is natural.

Filed by the nation's Sugar Association, the complaint requests an investigation into the marketing of Splenda's US distributor McNeil Nutritionals.

In a letter to the FTC sent Thursday, the industry body said that McNeil, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has undertaken an extensive nationwide marketing campaign to create the perception that Splenda - Tate & Lyle's sucralose brand product - is natural.

"Advertisers must have a reasonable basis for their claims. Consumers who choose to purchase Splenda products or food products containing Splenda are likely doing so based on the mistaken belief that Splenda is natural and, therefore, necessarily wholesome and safe. To the contrary, Splenda is an artificial product that contains chlorine, which is a reality lost by consumers who trust Johnson & Johnson/McNeil's advertising,"​ said the letter.

The complaint was hinged on the much-criticized Splenda slogan "made from sugar so it tastes like sugar".​ According to The Sugar Association, this is misleading as the sucrose - or sugar - contained in the sweetener has undergone a chemical molecular switch. In addition, the association notes that over 98 percent of Splenda is made up of bulking agents such as maltodextrin and dextrose, used to dilute the sweetener, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar.

The complaint also states that "to the extent that Splenda tastes like sugar, this purported fact is unrelated to the use of sucrose in the Splenda manufacturing process"​ , adding that Tate & Lyle has patented a process of creating sucralose from a substance called raffinose, which is a starch derives from beets. "Thus, the casual link implied by Splenda's tagline is false,"​ it said.

Finally, the complaint also states that the "no calorie"​ claim on Splenda is misleading, as the sweetener, which actually contains 4 calories per serving, takes advantage of Federal labeling laws that allow products that contain less than five calories per serving to carry a no calorie claim.

"The literal falsity of McNeil's advertising claims notwithstanding, what is most troubling about this advertising is that it misleads consumers to perceive Splenda as a natural product (…) which alleviates health and safety concerns that consumers might otherwise have,"​ said the letter.

The FTC confirmed it had received the letter, but declined to comment further.

In a statement published last week, McNeil called the claims the "latest tactic by The Sugar Association designed to injure the reputation and goodwill"​ of the Splenda brand. These are "baseless and a great disservice to the millions of consumers who safely use"​ the sweetener, said the firm.

McNeil said it has filed a court action to stop the association from continuing to make "false and misleading" claims about the brand.

"The lawsuit states the multi-million dollar competitive campaign by The Sugar Association on behalf of the Sugar Companies intends to cause material commercial injury to Splenda sweeteners,"​ it said.

However, in April this year, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by McNeil against The Sugar Association, accusing it of false advertising. The lawsuit claimed that the Sugar Association had engaged in false advertising in connection with a website it had established. The site, truthaboutsplenda.com publishes information about the sweetener, which the association claims comes from "many sources, including consumers who feel deceived by Splenda being advertised as tasting like sugar and being a natural product."

According to a federal court in Wilmington, Delaware, McNeil had no right to maintain an independent action.

Indeed, the two groups have a history of battling out their differences through lawsuits, with December 2004 marking the first lawsuit filed by The Sugar Association against McNeil for deceptive advertising. Filed in California, that suit remains ongoing, with McNeil this year filing a counter claim again accusing the industry body of deceptive advertising. The Sugar Association in turn filed a motion to dismiss these claims, which was last month denied by the US District Court of California. The Sugar Association has now filed an appeal to a higher court in California.

McNeil has also faced attack from competitor sweetener manufacturers. Merisant, the US maker of tabletop sweetener Equal and NutraSweet and a competitor to Splenda, alleged in November last year that the product's marketing slogan had mislead consumers into thinking the artificial sweetener was 'natural.'

In addition, a consumer group - Citizens for Health - this year filed a petition with the the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling on the agency to revoke its approval of Splenda until further investigation can confirm its safety.

And advertising boards in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year upheld petitions by the sugar bodies of those countries claiming Splenda advertising was misleading.

However, despite the battles, Splenda remains popular with consumers and manufacturers alike.

According to Datamonitor, the Splenda ingredient was used in some 1,436 new products worldwide in 2004, up from 573 in 2003 and 35 in 1999.

And Tate & Lyle recently announced that planned expansions at its Splenda factory in the US were completed on time and the plant is now operating at full capacity. And the company also expects to invest $463m in new projects in the US this year in a bid to expand production further. A new site in Singapore is also expected to open in January 2007.

Related topics: Sweeteners (intense, bulk, polyols)

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