Sugar and its substitutes take on the reigning champ.

By: Claudia Kalb and

                                                                                        Anne Underwood


 The delicacies ranged from stir-fried veggies and candied-ginger salad to blue-berry-peach cobbler and chocolate-coconut macaroons. But they all had one ingredient in common: the sugar substitute Splenda. As guests indulged, the chefs, wearing jackets branded with the Splcnda logo, gave testimonials. One said Splenda had helped him lose 20 pounds; another praised the product’s baking quality. And then there was Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant in Harlem, who said simply, “Hello Splenda, goodbye sugar:.”

The battle over America’s sweet tooth is hotter than ever. In the beginning there was old-fashioned sugar cane. Then came the artificial sweeteners: Sweet’N Low, Equal and now Splenda, the darling of the market. After its debut in 1998, diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins boosted the brand; today, thanks to savvy and aggressive marketing, it has garnered a cultlike following of consumers. It’s raking in big bucks: retail sales hit $188 million in the last 12 months—more than those of Equal and Sweet-‘N Low combined. And it’s driving competitors crazy The $2 billion-p1us artificial sweetener business has become, says Don Montuori of the market research firm Packaged Facts, “an intensely bitter competition.”

The sweetener wars heated up late last year when both the Sugar Association, representing producers and growers, and Merisant, Equal’s manufacturer, went after Splenda in the courts. Their problem: Splenda’s slogan, “Made From Sugar, So it Tastes Like Sugar.” Their charge: false advertising. Splenda is in no way natural, they say. Its manufacturing process uses chlorine to modify the chemical makeup of sugar. “They’re clearly misleading consumers, says Sugar Association president Andy Briscoe. The association even launched a scary Web site (“Do You Know What Your Children Are Eating?”), citing a lack of long-term studies on Splenda’s health effects. Briscoe calls the Web site “educational.” In a complaint filed back against the association, Splenda manufacturer McNeil Nutritionals says its product has been extensively studied and is safe. It calls the site a “malicious smear campaign?

Sweetener makers have been on the defensive about safety for decades. Animal tests have prompted cancer scares in the past, and Web sites today are rife with alleged reactions, from migraines to seizures. But the products have been heavily scrutinized by scientists, says George Pauli of the FDA. “You can’t be absolutely certain about anything, but when the FDA approves a substance, it has a reasonable certainty that no harm will result’ he says . “I’m confident about their safety?

Manufacturers want to boost sales. After 10 ad-free years and a drop in consumption, the Sugar Association has launched a new TV- radio and print campaign, with lines like “Trust Nature to Make Life Sweet.” Sweet’N Low has teamed up with the new “Pink Panther” movie, to be     released early next year. The wily character will appear on Sweet- ‘N Low’s pink packaging, and he’ll help promote the sweetener on 525 New York taxicabs . Merisant, meanwhile, is launching new Equal Flavor Sticks in peach, lemon and vanilla, and a $10,000 sweepstakes. It’s all about bringing “variety and excitement to the market,” says Merisant CEO Paul Block.

Excitement for the future: an all-natural and no-cal sweetener. One new product, Shugr, claims to be first. But it contains trace amounts of sucralosc, the active ingredient in Splenda. The race, market watchers say, is on. In the meantime, bakery chef Rebecca Rather has become a Splenda convert, She even named her new horse after the brand. No, Splenda the Thoroughbred doesn’t eat sugar cubes. “I give him carrots.” says Rather. About as natural as it gets.

Sugar Alternatives

                                                                                       With VANESSA JUAREZ

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