Fortifying an Artificial Sweetener with Vitamins or Fiber Doesn't Make it "Essential" for Health, Says CSPI

Splenda Essentials is a higher-priced line of the no-calorie artificial sweetener sucralose that is fortified either with B vitamins, antioxidants, or fiber. Those additions are designed to give the impression that Splenda Essentials will help one lose weight, avoid disease, or confer other health benefits. But that impression is false according to a lawsuit filed today in federal court, which alleges that Splenda Essentials provides no health benefits whatsoever and short-changes consumers.

"Make everything you sweeten a little bit better for you with Splenda Essentials Sweetener Products!" is how the product line is described on the Splenda Essentials web site, which goes on to tout the sweeteners' "small boost of healthy nutrients–B vitamins, antioxidants, or fiber."

Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins' label states that the product "helps support a healthy metabolism," and the Splenda web site describes how the vitamins support the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. That kind of language implies the burning of additional calories and the prospect of weight loss, the plaintiffs allege. But not only are most Americans not deficient in B vitamins, no reliable studies show that supplementation with B vitamins promotes weight loss or weight management, according to the complaint.

Besides purchasing Splenda Essentials with B Vitamins to stir into her own coffee and sprinkle on her cereal at home, co-plaintiff Barbara Bronson, 71, would put it out for patrons of her Corte Madera, California, hair salon.

"I was attracted to the idea of keeping my metabolism going strong, and I'd talk with my clients about how it might shed a pound or two," said Bronson. "It's really terrible that Splenda would try to make us believe something that isn't true."

The packaging of Splenda Essentials with Antioxidants' claims that it contains "20% of the Daily Value of antioxidants vitamins C and E, like those found in fruits and vegetables." But despite the pictures of antioxidant-rich fruit on the label, the antioxidants used in the product are from fortification. In fact, the complaint notes, the type of vitamin E used in Splenda Essentials is a synthetic version, dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate, and the vitamin C is synthetic ascorbic acid. In clinical studies, supplementation with pure vitamins has generally failed to provide the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

Similarly, Splenda Essentials with Fiber's label depicts foods high in intact fiber, such as strawberries, apples with their skin on, and whole grain cereal. And its web site says the "small boost of healthy fiber" is an "easy way to bump up your fiber intake," and points out that most adults are deficient in their fiber intake. But the lone gram of fiber in a packet of Splenda Essentials is refined corn fiber. There is no scientific consensus that a refined fiber functions like the intact fibers found in whole foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.

"It's ridiculous–but apparently profitable–to claim that bulking up Splenda with vitamins or powdered fiber is going to make it a magical health food," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit nutrition watchdog group that is helping to bring the suit. "It's an artificial sweetener, not pixie dust."

An online survey conducted by ORC International's Online Caravan found that up to 68 percent of 1,014 respondents formed incorrect perceptions of Splenda Essentials' potential benefits after being exposed to packaging or advertisements for each of the products.

This is not the first time that McNeil Nutritionals, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that manufactures Splenda Essentials, has misled consumers about the sweetener. In a 2005 campaign, the company ran ads claiming the product is "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar," triggering a lawsuit from Merisant, the manufacturer of the competing sugar substitute Equal, as well as a complaint filed by the Sugar Association, an industry trade group. In fact, Splenda is created by chemically reacting sucrose with chlorine, forming a unique molecule that is 600 times sweeter than sugar.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of three California consumers, and seeks certification as a class action. Besides CSPI's litigation department, the proposed class is represented by Robert W. Mills, Joshua Boxer, and their colleagues from The Mills Law Firm of San Rafael, California, The complaint alleges that Splenda Essentials’ labeling and marketing violates California’s Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Law, the Consumers Legal Remedy Act, and the fraudulent business practices provisions of the state’s Business and Professions Code. It seeks restitution to consumers and disgorgement of profits from the product line, as well as injunctive relief prohibiting the company from continuing its deceptive labeling and marketing.