WASHINGTON – Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) is facing a raft of lawsuits over a marketing campaign related to its artificial sweetener Splenda, which accuse the company of misleading buyers to believe Splenda is a natural product.
Splenda (search), which has enjoyed rapid sales growth on the back of a boom in low-carbohydrate eating in the last couple of years, is marketed by J&J's McNeil Nutritionals Worldwide (search) division with the line: "Splenda No Calorie Sweetener is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar."
But the Sugar Association (search) says the marketing pitch does not accurately reflect the end product and is misleading because it gives the impression that Splenda contains natural sugar.
McNeil faces three class-action suits from individuals, one from the Sugar Association and one from Merisant Worldwide Inc (search), the maker of rival low-calorie sweetener products including Equal and Canderel.
"Johnson & Johnson is misinforming consumers about the reality of the chlorinated product Splenda," said James Murphy, counsel for the Sugar Association, whose lawsuit seeks aunspecified damages, a nationwide injunction and corrective advertising.
"We feel the public needs to be aware that Splenda is an artificial chemical sweetener. Splenda is created with chlorine, and the final product does not have sugar in it," he said.
Splenda's Web Site (http://www.splenda.com) says the product is made "through a patented process that starts with sugar and converts it to a no calorie, noncarbohydrate sweetener. The process selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms."
A spokeswoman for McNeil Nutritional told Reuters that the lawsuits had no merit.
"Consumers are utilizing no-calorie sweeteners versus other sweeteners like sugar, and you would have to draw your own conclusions about why now these efforts are being launched." said Monica Neufang, director of communications for McNeil,
"We have never represented Splenda as being natural," she said.
Splenda has just over 50 percent of the U.S. market for low calorie sweeteners, based on dollar volume, according to data collected by IRI and made available to Reuters by McNeil.
It is used in products which include Kool-Aid Jammers (search) 10 tropical Punch drink, produced by Kraft Foods.
"Obviously, any organization that represents the sugar growers of the world would like to have people know what they are buying when they are buying a sweetener," said Dan Collister, attorney at Squire, Sanders and Dempsey, acting for the Sugar Association.
Separately, the Texas Consumer Association said on Monday it had asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate the Splenda marketing campaign.
"With consumers across the country concerned about their health and trying to eat more natural foods, it is alarming that McNeil is engaged in an underhanded campaign to confuse consumers into believing Splenda is natural," commented Sandra Haverlah, president of the Texas Consumer Association.
Haverlah said she was working with the Consumer Federation Network and was not associated with the groups bringing suits against Splenda.
No one from Merisant was available for comment.