April 06, 2007

The battle of the artificial sweeteners

I'm not involved in the current artificial sweetener battle between Equal and Splenda, so I guess I can say what I want about it. Equal claims that Splenda is misleading the public with its tag line, "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." The issue seems to hinge on "made from" here. Equal says this is a big fib and that Splenda, made of sucralose, approved by the FDA in 1998, is not as natural as it claims.

The judge overseeing the case wrote an opinion that says "made from sugar" excludes the interpretation that Splenda is sugar or that it is made with sugar. The ingredients listed on the Splenda package do not include sugar.  So Equal wonders how a consumer would interpret Splenda's  tag line, "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar" if there is no sugar in it.

There are at least two skirmishes going on here. One is the matter of "tastes like," which I gleefully leave to the chemists who are likely to be called as expert witnesses by both sides. About this, for example, Bryn Mawr chemist Michelle Francl says:

Sucralose is made by chlorinating sugar, that is replacing 3 of the 8 hydroxyl (OH) groups with chlorine atoms ... Such a substitution can utterly change the properties of the molecule, including the taste. For example, replacing the OH group on ethanol (the alcohol we drink) produces an effective refrigerant (it's used as a local anesthetic, in fact), but not a good drink! An even smaller change, the inverting of two groups on the molecule that makes up spearmint oil, changes it into caraway oil (and you would never say that mint tea tastes like rye bread). Bottom line, there is no reason that any given derivative sugar will taste anything like sugar!

Of more interest at Language Log Plaza is the expression, "made from sugar." We first need to know that Splenda manufactures sucralose in its laboratories. Splenda says that the process starts with sugar, then adds three chlorine atoms found in foods like salt and lettuce to a molecule of sucrose. Voila! The sucrose disappears and they get something different -- sucralose. Splenda then mixes it with bulking agents to get the product we find on the grocery store shelves. So it starts out being sugar and ends up being  something else and, for the record, my wife maintains that it tastes like sugar. I wouldn't know. My taste buds are not strong.

So it starts as sugar and ends up being transformed into something else. Does this justify Splenda saying it is "made from" sugar? In the hope that current usage might help, I checked Google and  got the following results:

"made from" 1,770,000,000

"made of" 1,770,000,000 (oddly enough, the same number of hits as "made from")

"made with" 1,670,000,000

"made out of" 1,350,000,000

"made from sugar" 35,500,000

I couldn't check out all of these but my quick survey showed me that the hits are what they suggest. Sounds like divided usage, doesn't it? So let's see what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has to say about "from." "From" can operate as a location prepostion, as in "Kim walked from the post-office to the supermarket," indicating a change in location from the initial place to the new one, called "source" and "goal." From" marks the source and "to" marks the goal (p. 648). But "from" can also indicate duration in time, as in "it lasted from Sunday to Friday."  And, more relevant to this case perhaps, "from" can also indicate a change of state, as in "it went from bad to worse"(p. 656).

Apparently Splenda's tag line uses "from" to indicate a change of state. What was once in the state of being sugar is now in the state of being sucralose. Whether or not this will be convincing to the court is another matter. But it's hard to imagine how Splenda could have said this better without describing the chemical changes involved in the process. And that wouldn't make a very catchy tag line, would it?

Update: John Cowan writes that he believes the tag line is deceptive because of its use of "so," which indicates that the reason Splenda tastes like sugar is because it is made from sugar, which technically at least, it isn't.

Posted by Roger Shuy at April 6, 2007 08:49 PM