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The nation’s top-selling artificial sweetener, Splenda, is caught in a sour legal mess as it faces several lawsuits challenging its “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar” slogan. In the last four months, nine state court consumer class actions and two federal cases have been filed against Johnson & Johnson/McNeil Nutritionals, the distributors of Splenda, over false advertising claims. One has been dismissed, and one other stayed. The suits allege that Splenda’s marketers are misleading consumers into thinking that Splenda is a natural product, when, they allege, it’s actually a highly processed chemical sweetener created with chlorine. Among the plaintiffs are The Sugar Association, which fears that Splenda is starting to invade its turf by swiping real sugar consumers, and Merisant Worldwide Inc., the maker of competing NutraSweet and Equal, which have been nudged aside by Splenda. In four years, Splenda has acquired more than 50 percent of the artificial-sweetener market. NO SWEET TALK HERE “We think that it’s deceptive in that their whole advertising campaign tries to say that Splenda is natural rather than a chemical compound. It’s not natural at all,” asserted Jim Murphy of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, who is representing The Sugar Association in its suit against McNeil Nutritionals. The Sugar Association v. McNeil Nutritionals, No. CV 04-1077DSF (C.D. Calif.). Steven Zalesin of New York’s Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, who is representing McNeil Nutritionals in all the lawsuits, declined comment. A McNeil Nutritionals spokeswoman, Monica Neufang, defended the company’s marketing techniques and Splenda’s quality, denying claims that consumers are being confused or misled. “We have never maintained or communicated that the brand is natural,” Neufang said. “Our consumers understand that we are a no-calorie sweetener.” As for the slogan, Neufang defended it on two grounds. First, she said, Splenda “is made from sugar,” noting that truckloads of unrefined table sugar are transported regularly to a plant in MacIntosh, Ala., where they are processed and turned into Sucralose, the sweetening ingredient in Splenda. And as for the “tastes like sugar” claim — while that may be debatable — it’s not false, she said. “We stand by our product and our slogan,” said Neufang, adding that Splenda’s sellers are fighting back. On Feb. 8 in U.S. district court in Delaware, McNeil Nutritionals filed a lawsuit for false advertising and deceptive trade practices against The Sugar Association and its members. The suit, which seeks injunctive relief and damages, aims to stop The Sugar Association and other defendants from making false and misleading claims about the Splenda brand. “This is an action to stop a false and malicious smear campaign by which defendants seek to frighten the American public into thinking that Sucralose, the sweetening ingredient in McNeil’s best-selling Splenda products, is somehow unhealthy or unsafe, and that consumers would be better off consuming refined sugar,” the plaintiffs stated in the complaint. McNeil Nutritionals v. The Sugar Association, No. 05-69 (D. Del.). Splenda’s legal headaches started last year, when Merisant, the sellers of Nutrasweet and Equal, asked the national advertising division of the Better Business Bureau to investigate McNeil for alleged false advertising claims involving Splenda. In response, McNeil filed a lawsuit in a court in Puerto Rico in November, seeking to have its advertising claims declared valid. That led to Merisant’s lawsuit against McNeil — the first lawsuit targeting Splenda — which was filed on Nov. 26 in federal court in Philadelphia. In that suit, the distributors of Nutrasweet and Equal asked the court to prohibit McNeil from making any further claims associating Splenda with sugar, and order it to clarify to consumers that Splenda is a synthetic chemical. Currently, there are seven state consumer class actions pending against McNeil Nutritionals in Florida, California and Massachusetts. In those suits, the plaintiffs allege they were duped into believing that Splenda was a natural product.

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