Bitter battle over sweeteners

September 26, 2008

There's no sugar-coating the animosity between the sugar industry and the maker of the artificial sweetener Splenda.

Duke University researchers, in a project partially funded by the Sugar Association, have published a study showing that Splenda contributes to obesity, destroys "good" bacteria in the intestines, and may keep prescription drugs from being absorbed properly.

But Splenda's maker has already fired back, saying the findings were "unsupported by the data presented." And the financial relationship between Duke and the Sugar Association is likely to cause debate about academia's ties to big business.

The study was posted on the website of The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, a scholarly peer-reviewed journal. It will appear in the print version of the journal next month. The Duke University researchers used rats to compare the impact of Splenda consumption at varying levels, all within the FDA's acceptable range of intake.

At the end of 12 weeks, Professor Mohammed Abou-Donia, the lead researcher on the project, said that levels of so-called beneficial bacteria dropped by 50 per cent in the rats consuming Splenda. He says the weight of the rats consuming Splenda also increased significantly.

The Duke researchers say the Sugar Association had no input into their study.

McNeil Nutritionals, the maker of Splenda, dismissed the study on its website, and said the sweetener will not cause weight gain. It said its own review of the Duke study concluded "concluded that the study design had serious flaws and could not allow for any meaningful interpretation."

And the website notes that in July, 2008, a federal judge blocked the Sugar Association from introducing the Duke rat study as evidence in its case against McNeil. The website says the judge deemed the rat study "irrelevant" to humans.

However, a food industry e-newsletter, says the study "raises questions about the safety profile of Splenda," which is used in thousands of products worldwide.

The two have been locked in a long battle over Splenda's use of the advertising slogan "made from sugar, so tastes like sugar." The sugar industry says Splenda (sucralose) is only an alcohol derived from sugar, with no relation to the original substance. Read the full statement on Splenda<\a> from McNeil Nutritionals.