Artificial sweetener Splenda has enjoyed phenomenal success in recent years, and now has a 51% share of the US market. But now it has a fight on its hands, as sugar manufacturers file lawsuits claiming misleading advertising in a bid to halt the brand’s stellar growth. David Robertson reports.

In just five years Splenda, the sugar substitute, has grown from being a clever molecule designed to help people with diabetes to the dominant force in the artificial sweetener market. For sweet-toothed Americans, Splenda has been an ideal solution to the problem of how to enjoy the taste of sugar but not its calories.

Now, however, Splenda is under fire from traditional sugar producers who claim that the brand is falsely claiming to be a “natural” product. The battle has turned nasty with writs flying back and forth as both sides accuse the other of deception. So far, this has not dampened consumer interest in Splenda and the brand is one of the most fashionable food products currently available, which is unusual for an artificial sweetener.

The sweetener market in the US is estimated to be worth US$1bn and artificial sweeteners account for between $300m and $500m, depending on the definition used. Splenda now has a 51% market share of the artificial market, having overtaken established brands like NutraSweet, Equal and Sweet’N Low. It is growing so rapidly (sales up 50% last year) that even traditional sugar manufacturers are getting worried.

Stellar growth

The brand was first launched on the Internet in 1999 and was marketed to consumers with specific dietary requirements – like those with diabetes. A year later it was made available in stores, and it hasn’t look back since.

About 4,000 products now contain Splenda with both Coca-Cola and Pepsi introducing Splenda versions of their Diet brands later this year – a sure sign the brand has “arrived”. The ownership of Splenda is quite complicated: Tate & Lyle, the British sugar processor, owns the sucralose molecule from which Splenda is made. But McNeil Nutritionals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, owns the brand and markets Splenda in the US.

Monica Neufang, a spokeswoman for McNeil Nutritionals, explained how the brand took off: “Our research indicated that what consumers were looking for from an artificial sweetener was none of the unpleasant after-taste you sometimes get with these products and also something they could cook with.

“I think we have also benefited from the various low-carbohydrate and low-sugar diets that have been popular in recent years. These diets have taught people that sugar is a carbohydrate so more consumers are looking for products with no added sugar or that are sugar free – and that has had a positive impact on our business.”

Splenda is made from normal sugar but it has three atoms of chlorine added for three hydroxyl groups (oxygen and hydrogen atoms). This creates an incredibly strong molecule that will not break down during cooking, which allows Splenda to be used in baking (unlike many other artificial sweeteners). And because the molecule is so strong it passes through the body without being fully processed. As a result, the consumer gets the sweet taste of sugar but the molecule passes out of their body before it is broken down into energy – i.e. no calories.

Consumer backlash

But the addition of these chlorine atoms is controversial – and the brand’s critics believe there will be a consumer backlash when more people learn about how Splenda is made.

This is something that nearly all artificial sweeteners have gone through at some point in their past. Major health scares have hit Saccharin, which was introduced in 1957 as Sweet’N Low, and was reported to cause cancer in rats, and Aspartame, used in the Equal brand.

McNeil Nutritionals insists that Splenda is perfectly safe – although such assurances will be of little use if consumer advocates decide to whip up a scare story. (In such cases, the facts don’t usually matter.) Monica Neufang says: “Chlorine is a naturally occurring substance that is found in lettuce and water. People consume it every day and there is no need for concern.”

However, the US Sugar Association’s anti-Splenda website disagrees saying: “The manufacturer of Splenda claims that chlorine is naturally present in such foods as lettuce, mushrooms and table salt, but they never directly state that eating Splenda is the same as eating these foods. Remember, Splenda is not a natural substance, it is an artificial chemical sweetener manufactured by adding three chlorine atoms to a sugar molecule.”

False advertising?

This is only the start of the spat between Splenda and the sugar producers (natural and artificial). The Sugar Association, plus others, issued a lawsuit last December claiming that Splenda’s marketing and its sales line: “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar”, is misleading consumers into thinking that Splenda is a natural product. The Center for Science in the Public Interest agreed that the marketing is confusing and published a survey that showed only 57% of Splenda users knew it was an artificial sweetener.

McNeil Nutritionals has fired back its own lawsuit at the Sugar Association accusing it of false advertising and deceptive trade practices. If these cases drag on for years it seems likely that Splenda will have the most to lose from the publicity because every time a publication writes about the spat it will comment on the addition of chlorine and the Sugar Association’s assertion that this is not “natural”. Health scares have been built on far less.

Meanwhile the Sugar Association is planning its own campaign to win back consumers with a $3-4m advertising blitz. The association hopes to remind consumers that sugar is “natural” and has only 15 calories per teaspoon. Melanie Miller, the Sugar Association’s spokeswoman, said: “We have seen a decline in sugar consumption in recent years and what we want to do is reintroduce people to sugar. With so much focus on low-carb diets sugar has been made out to be the villain and there are a lot of myths out there about sugar being the primary cause of obesity and diabetes. We need to let people know that it is still okay to consume sugar in moderation. We want to give them permission to enjoy natural sugar again.”

International expansion

For Splenda, the next step will be international expansion and also reaching markets in the US that have not yet taken to the product. For example, McNeil Nutritionals is about to launch a campaign to target the Hispanic community, which has one of the higher rates of diabetes in the US.

If McNeil can keep the public focussed on Splenda’s benefits, in particular its taste, and keep signing major brands like Coke and Pepsi then it stands a good chance of obliterating its competition – artificial and natural. But virtually every artificial sweetener created so far has had to deal with a health scare at some time in its history and with the Sugar Association pressing so hard, Splenda’s could be the biggest witch hunt yet.

This is a brand that has grown very quickly and been tremendously successful. But its marketers will have to tread a fine line from now on if it is not to disappear just as quickly.