Friday, April 6, 2007

Sweet Money

So just how much money is there in the world of artificial sweeteners? Try $1.5 billion a year.

And that's enough for Merisant, the makers of the aspartame-based sweetener Equal, to square off in court next week against McNeil Nutritionals, makers of sucralose-based Splenda.

The folks at Merisant are naturally concerned--fake sugar is big business. And since Splenda came on the scene back in 1999, Equal sales have fallen like a stone. Once in more than 6,000 consumer products and top of the artificial sweetener heap, Equal has tanked. Splenda now makes up 62 percent of the market in the US.

The thing Merisant has hung its legal hat on is McNeil's claim than Splenda is "made from sugar so it tastes like sugar." There is a big battle now over syntax and implied meaning in language, which a dorky editor-type like myself would salivate over even if products I consume weren't involved.

Does "made from sugar" imply that Splenda is actually sugar in some altered form? Merisant says so, and that sucralose is manufactured in a lab, not a cane field. McNeil simply says it says what it says (got that?)--that sucrose is involved early in the manufacturing process but anything resembling sucrose evaporates and is gone early on. Plus, Morisant contends, Splenda doesn't necessarily even begin with cane sugar--McNeil has filed dozens of patents on ways to manufacture sucralose. One of those ways involves sugar, but others are based on things like raffinose, a sugar cousin found in onions and broccoli, or other things completely unrelated to sugar.

As personally interesting as I find this case, I don't buy Merisant's implied contention that McNeil/Splenda has cornered the market because they've fooled consumers into thinking they're eating a more "natural" product than aspartame/Equal.

I think it boils down to taste--Splenda tastes better to me--and safety concerns over aspartame. As long as we had no readily available options, we ate Equal. Once another option became available, we switched. Simple as that.

How safe is Splenda? Well, I'm old enough to remember the cancer scare over saccharin, which kind of turned out to be an unsustainable charge, and the sweetener bogeyman is currently wailing on aspartame. I have no doubts sucralose will have its day in the questionable-health-value spotlight.

Meanwhile, I have switched to Splenda for most of my artificial sweetener needs, though I still prefer plain old aspartame-riddled Diet Coke to the citrus-tasting Splenda version, and I use saccharin-based Sweet & Low in my iced tea.

So whatever they all cause, I'll get it.

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