Battle of Sweeteners Turns Sour in Federal Court

The litigants are in the business of making our lives sweeter. But they sure aren’t sweet on one another.

To the contrary, the makers of Equal and NutraSweet, Merisant Company, have hauled the manufacturers of Splenda, McNeil Nutritionals, into federal court in Philadelphia. The Equal/NutraSweet folks claim they’ve lost $25 million in sales since 2003, when the Splenda team started making what the plaintiffs contend is a false claim.

For those who still use only real sugar, here’s a quick primer. Splenda is the artificial sweetener in the little yellow packet. Equal is blue. Sweet’N Low (not a party to the suit) is the pink-packaged product in the restaurant’s sugar bowl.

The lawsuit, expected to last at least a couple of weeks, revolves around Splenda’s slogan, “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” Merisant says Splenda contains no sugar and that McNeil’s false claim has netted the defendants $183 million in unfair profits since ’03.

McNeil’s original ad tagline went like this: “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar. But it’s not sugar.” When the ad campaign bombed, the company dropped the second sentence. Sales climbed.

Splenda now allegedly enjoys 60 percent of the $355 million per year consumer-sales market for artificial sweeteners. Equal and Sweet’N Low are each stuck at about 14 percent.

Equal is made with something called aspartame. Sweet’N Low is concocted with saccharin. Neither chemical compound comes from sugar.

By contrast, Splenda starts out with sugar in its manufacturing process but burns it off, so that no sugar is actually left in the final product. Thus, the plaintiff’s claim that McNeil is guilty of false advertising in violation of federal law.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m a Sweet’N Low man from way back. Why? Well, first of all, I like the company’s pedigree. This from its website, http://www.sweetnlow.com/about.html: “The war was over. With it had gone all the uniformed customers in Ben Eisenstadt’s Brooklyn Navy Yard cafeteria. He had four kids and two newly immigrated in-laws to support

. After he sold the eatery’s fixtures, just enough cash remained to purchase on tea-bag(ging) machine

.” Ben next started individually bagging sugar, among many products. Then in 1957 he and son Marvin came up with the sugar substitute, which they dubbed Sweet’N Low after the title of Ben’s favorite song, which in turn was borrowed from a Tennyson poem.

Second, I like the product’s health credentials. Saccharin was once suspected of causing cancer. It seemed to cause cancer in laboratory mice. Eventually, researchers realized that if you feed a lab mouse massive amounts of any chemical compound, the rodent probably will sprout a tumor or two. When an article in the New England Journal of Medicine gave SweetN’ Low a clean bill some years back, I became one of the product’s many dedicated customers.

I’m in good company. The SweetN’ Low website boasts a letter from Louis Armstrong: “Dear SweetN’ Low folks, I just want to tell you that SweetN’ Low picks me up and is just right for my diet. Since I use lots of it, I wonder if I could order direct from the company? I buy large orders.” Will I be accused of stereotyping jazz musicians if I admit to a mental image of Satchmo organizing lines of SweetN’ Low on a mirror and snorting them through a cocktail straw?

As for Equal v. Splenda, may the better sweetener win. Either way, I’ll remain in the pink.

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