Science in the courtroom: is 'made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar' false advertising?

The July 9 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (alas, behind a paywall -- but worth checking to see if your library has an institutional subscription) has an interesting piece [1] on the recently-settled trial in which the makers of Equal (an artificial sweetener based on aspartame) sued the makers of Splenda (an artificial sweetener based on sucralose) over their claim in advertisements, "Splenda is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." The makers of Equal (a company called Merisant) asserted that this claim was deceptive.

Most of the C&E News piece focuses on the ways the two sides deployed their scientific experts in the courtroom to explain the dispute (and build the case for their way of seeing things, naturally) to a jury of non-scientists.

The sucralose molecule differs from sucrose (table sugar) by three chlorine atoms. One of the central questions in the trial was whether this structural similarity to sucrose is what makes sucralose taste sweet. To examine this question, the jurors couldn't just ponder structural similarities between the two molecules in isolation, but were asked to consider similarities in the ways the two molecules bind to the sweet taste receptors on the tongue.

McNeil Nutritionals (the company that makes Splenda) hoped to persuade the jury with the testimony of Steven Munger, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. From the article:

Munger explained that sucralose attaches to two subunits of the sweet receptor, T1R2 and T1R3, in the same way that sugar does. Furthermore, he said, when bound to the receptor, sucralose brings about the same kind of cellular changes as sucrose. The only difference is that sucralose binds far more tightly than sucrose, making it 600 times sweeter, he said.

Munger backed up his argument with data from experiments he had performed. One study employed fluorescence spectroscopy to measure the binding affinity of sucrose and sucralose for T1R2 and T1R3, while another used a synchrotron to measure the conformational change the receptor undergoes when sucrose or sucralose binds to it.

The gist of the argument seems to be that if a molecule that's structurally similar to sucrose binds to the sweet taste receptor in a way that's similar to how sucrose binds to that taste receptor, the similarity in binding ("tastes like sugar") can be attributed to the similarity in structure ("made from sugar").

Of course, Merisant's scientific expert, Eric Walters, a medicinal chemist from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science, didn't see it that way:

He had three key talking points: First, sucralose's sugarlike taste is not due to any origins from sugar; second, sucralose has off-tastes that sucrose doesn't have, suggesting it binds to taste receptors beyond the sweet taste receptor; and finally, contrary to Munger's findings, sucralose does not bind to the sweet taste receptor in the same place or in the same way as sucrose does.

Walters illustrated his points with data from human taste tests; with an analysis of the three-dimensional structures of sucrose and sucralose; and with a comparison of the stereochemistry of galactosucrose, which is not sweet, with that of sucralose.

This first point is actually the one that makes me question Splenda's slogan. While it isn't made clear in the article, I find myself a little dubious of the claim that sucralose is actually made from sucrose. Is sucrose actually the cheapest staring material to use to synthesize this artificial sweetener? Maybe it is, but given the price of sugar at the store, it would surprise me if there weren't some cheaper material to start with. Also, it's pretty clear to me that starting with sucrose is no guarantee of ending up with something sweet. Burn some sugar -- really burn it -- and taste what you're left with. It isn't sweet.

So, were I a juror, I'd certainly be asking:

  • Is it actually made from sugar?
  • Does being made from sugar necessarily imply that the product of the synthesis will taste like sugar?

If the answer to either of these questions is "no" then the slogan-writers overreached. And, no matter what the answer to the first question, I know that there is no "conservation of sweetness" in chemical reactions, so the answer to the second question has to be "no".

That seems to be the direction the jury was leaning when the case was settled (though the article speculates that the jurors might have been swayed as much by the relative age and experience of the dueling expert witnesses; the article doesn't speculate as to whether a jury might also have been predisposed to favor the testimony of a chemist over that of a biologist).

Deceptive advertising! Who'd've thunk it?

[1] Lisa M. Jarvis, "Sweet Chemstry: Trial pitting Splenda against Equal brings science to the courtroom" Chemical & Engineering News, Volume 85, Number 28, July 9, 2007, p. 27.

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"Does being made from sugar necessarily imply that the product of the synthesis will taste like sugar?"

I disagree that this must be the case for the statement to be true--it sounds I have a broader take on the word "so". I think that for someone to say "it's made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar" only implies that the fact that it's "made from sugar" is (more or less directly) related to the fact that it "tastes like sugar".
To me, one definition of "so" could be used to change the sentence to something more like "it's made from sugar in order to make it taste like sugar". Just like saying "we make it from wool in order to make it warm" doesn't imply that all things made of wool are warm, or that all warm things are wool. Even though technically with this definition of so I think the comma after "so" would've been left out, I think that's just getting too picky to say that they are intentionally misleading people any more than a typical ad.

From the dictionary entry on "so" at
"USAGE NOTE Many critics and grammarians have insisted that so must be followed by that in formal writing when used to introduce a clause giving the reason for or purpose of an action: He stayed so that he could see the second feature. But since many respected writers use so for so that in formal writing, it seems best to consider the issue one of stylistic preference: The store stays open late so (or so that) people who work all day can buy groceries."

I guess I am still not sure whether the comma makes it impossible for "so" to mean "so that", but in my mind it could still mean "so that" even if there is a comma. If the tasting like sugar was the purpose of making it from sugar, I think the claim is true (or at least not false). And why else would their molecule be similar to the sugar molecule? Clearly, they were trying to use the sugar molecule as a guide to making their molecule, so they can say that the purpose of making it from sugar was the tasting like sugar.

The object of 'made-from-so-tastes-like' is to persuade people that Splenda is just like sugar, which it definitely is not.

How about this? "Chloral hydrate is made from ethanol, so it intoxicates like ethanol."

Or ether for that matter.

I don't think that their claim necessitates that raw sugar be the starting material. For my mind, as long as the creative process went something like this, I'd be satisfied: Lets make an artificial sweetener that has a similar structure to sugar, such that we can conserve the activation of a sweet receptors, while eliminating the caloric value. To me this seems to be the case - a molecule designed to have high structural similarity, that continues to activate the same receptors.

Maybe this illustrates the difference between how biologists and chemists think (I'm a biologist). For me, I see the molecule having distinct modular properties that need to be distinguished. While I presume chemists want "Made from sugar" to literally mean, you took A and converted it to B.

From the Splenda wikipedia article (FWIW, emphasis mine)

Tate & Lyle manufactures sucralose at a plant in McIntosh, Alabama, with additional capacity under construction in Jurong, Singapore. It is manufactured by the selective chlorination of sucrose, in which three of the hydroxyl groups are replaced with chlorine atoms to produce 1,6-dichloro-1,6-dideoxy-β-D-fructo-furanosyl 4-chloro-4-deoxy-α-D-galactopyranoside or C12H19Cl3O8

This indicates that indeed splenda is made from sucrose as a starting material.
I agree however, that the "made it tastes like" is a specious linkage.

Huh, I guess it's not just the cost of the starting material, but the costs of the steps to take it to the target molecule that matter -- so it really is made from sugar. (If it were made from tree bark and ended up tasting so sweet, it would actually be more impressive, but maybe not so appealing to the consumer.)

And Grackle, if I start selling chloral hydrate, will you write my ad copy? ;-)

The precedent in question should be the fact that companies (in America, at least) are able to advertise their foods as being made with "Natural flavors." In almost every case, the flavors in question are natural only in that they are chemically identical to those found in natural occurring foods. That is, they are in fact manufactured/synthesized in the laboratory.

Is saying "Natural flavors" false advertisement? Certainly misleading to the general public, but probably legal in practice. Therefore, I must side with Splenda on this one, regardless of how the product is made.

Am I alone in wondering just what a jury is doing being asked to decide this ? It strikes me that issue is a scientific one, and one that where if a legal decision is required it would be better decided by a judge acting on independent scientific advice. I know that the US legal system, nor the UK legal system (where I live), work in this way, although in the UK there has been talk of late of providing judges with access to scientific advice separate from any of the parties involved.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

You are ignoring the fact that this suit is absurd from the start. If I had been on the jury, I would have been so pissed off at having my time wasted that I would have voted for the defendant unless the plaintiff made a very, very good case that it mattered even a little bit to me. And I don't think they could have made that case.

Is sucrose actually the cheapest staring material to use to synthesize this artificial sweetener? Maybe it is, but given the price of sugar at the store, it would surprise me if there weren't some cheaper material to start with.

I suspect the cheapest molecule around with an appreciable resemblance to sucrose is in fact sucrose, and that it would be hard to get much cheaper than sucrose for cheap starting materials for a sucrose derivative. I would be surprised if there were a cheaper material to start with.

By El Christador (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

Dang. I was being obnoxious in my previous message, and now I regret it, because it's mean and unnecessary. I apologize. (For the tone of it, not the content, which is all true but just not presented diplomatically.)

By El Christador (not verified) on 17 Jul 2007 #permalink

I've always hated that slogan. It's almost, but not quite, as troublesome as, "It's totally natural, so it's totally safe!" (Not sure what that one was for, but I heard it a lot on the radio as a kid.) Sigh.

I'm with Mark P. The whole case seems a waste of time. Equal just upset that Splenda tastes better regardless of how it's made. I wonder how much of our tax dollars were spent for this case?

same topic discussed here:

Based on that article
# Is it actually made from sugar?


# Does being made from sugar necessarily imply that the product of the synthesis will taste like sugar?

I don't see the need for "necessarily".

The article discusses the "country of origin" label on goods and how chemistry comes into play to establish proper use of the label. The prerequisite for using the label is that a chemically substantial change was made to the product in a given country.

It is plain to see that the "country of origin" has only legal and advertising meaning (for tax and emotional reasons respectively).

While a location can be defined, by virtue of the existence of some chemical process in some specific location, the converse is not true; i.e. the "country of origin" label is meaningless (from a chemistry perspective).

(1) "What is the country of origin?" is a question which advertisers want and law can decide through chemistry.

(2) "Does the country of origin matter with regards to taste, quality or chemistry?", no, but that doesn't change (1).

For "Does being made from sugar necessarily imply that the product of the synthesis will taste like sugar?", I think the answer is no, but I also think the question is irrelevant.

Does sodium chloride taste more like sodium or chlorine?