So much for being sweet — the Splenda war just turned a little more sour.
The marketers of the popular sugar substitute filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Delaware on Tuesday alleging that the Sugar Association and other groups are waging a “malicious smear campaign” against their product in an attempt to boost sugar sales.
McNeil Nutritionals, the unit of Johnson & Johnson that markets Splenda, is seeking corrective advertising and unspecified damages. The lawsuit says the defendants are trying to convince consumers that Splenda is “unhealthy or unsafe” and that they “would be better off consuming refined sugar, which has been linked to an increase in the prevalence of obesity and its related health risks.”
“They’re trying to create a fear factor around Splenda, which is just totally inappropriate,” Colin Watts, president of Fort Washington-based McNeil Nutritionals, told The Associated Press.
The lawsuit points to a Web site associated with the Sugar Association, which represents sugar growers and refiners, and titled “The Truth About Splenda.” The Web site disputes claims that Splenda has been thoroughly tested, that it is “safe to eat, even for children,” and that consumers “have every reason to believe what they see and hear in Splenda’s advertisements.”
The active ingredient in Splenda — marketed with the slogan “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar” — is sucralose. Sucralose begins life as pure cane sugar before it is chemically altered during the manufacturing process to create a compound that doesn’t contain any calories, according to company officials.
Tuesday’s suit is in response to a false advertising lawsuit the Sugar Association filed against McNeil in California in December, Watts said. That lawsuit seeks to prevent the makers of Splenda from continuing what it called a “misleading” advertising campaign.
Jim Murphy, a Sugar Association lawyer, said there are similar consumer class-action complaints in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida and California. He added that his group also believes there are unanswered questions about whether Splenda is healthy.
“I think one of the concerns is that there really have been no long-term studies that resolve whether or not consumption of Splenda is healthy,” he said.
The manufacturer of Splenda sucralose, Tate & Lyle PLC, was not named in the Sugar Association lawsuit because the primary concern was with marketing, Murphy said.
Sucralose was approved for sale in the United States in 1998 after years of testing on rats, other mammals and humans, according to George Pauli, of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
“We concluded that the use is safe,” Pauli said. “That means there is a reasonable certainty in the mind of competent scientists that no harm will result from its intended use.”
FDA officials declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
Product remains popular
Splenda’s popularity has soared since it was introduced in the United States over the Internet in 1999. Sales rose from about $65 million in 2001 to more than $346 million in 2004, the lawsuit said.
The Coca-Cola Co., the world’s biggest soft drink maker, said Monday it will begin selling Diet Coke sweetened with Splenda in the spring. PepsiCo Inc. said it plans to reformulate its single-calorie drink Pepsi One with the sweetener as well.
Splenda has over 50 percent of the market share of sugar substitutes, according to Information Resources Inc. Equal has a little less than 20 percent and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Cumberland Packing Corp.’s Sweet’n Low has about 15 percent.
In December, Chicago-based Merisant Corp., the company that makes the artificial sweetener Equal, filed a false advertising lawsuit claiming Splenda isn’t really made from sugar. McNeil Nutritionals denied those claims and Watts said Tuesday’s lawsuit was a separate matter.
Meanwhile, the Sugar Association and McNeil Nutritionals both say they aren’t responsible for starting the sweetness battle that is quickly becoming a legal toothache.
“They are trying to attack us,” Murphy said.
Not so, says Watts.
“They opened up this situation with litigation,” he said. “We have not tried to turn this into a mudslinging fest.”