DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Pink, yellow, blue - artificial sweeteners face off each morning at coffee shops across the country. This month, they're also facing off in the courtroom. The company that makes Equal is suing its competitor, the makers of Splenda, over its marketing slogan.
(Soundbite of Splenda ad)
Unidentified Man: Because Splenda low-calorie sweetener is made from sugar and tastes like sugar, it's taken America by storm. Splenda, made from sugar, tastes like sugar.
ELLIOTT: Lawyers for Equal says Splenda's made from sugar slogan misleads consumers by making them think that Splenda contains table sugar, which it doesn't. But Splenda's maker responds the slogan is accurate because Splenda starts its chemical life as plain old table sugar.
The court battle raises the question, what makes a sugar a sugar? That's the question today for Science Out of the Box.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: To get an answer, NPR's Addy Goss stopped by a chemistry lab.
ADDY GOSS: You might have one sugar bowl on your counter. Derek Horton has 15, and each one holds a different kind of sugar.
Professor DEREK HORTON (Chemist, American University): Here we have fructose, glucose. This is cellobiose(ph).
GOSS: Gordon is a chemist who's an expert on sugars. He works at American University in Washington.
Prof. HORTON: Here's another monosaccharide, galactose. Here's maltose, glucose. Glucose…
GOSS: Could I taste galactose?
Prof. HORTON: Yes, you can.
(Soundbite of spoon)
Prof. HORTON: Just slightly sweet.
Prof. HORTON: All right?
GOSS: Horton says there are actually hundreds of different sugars. And it turns out that some of them aren't that sweet. Like milk sugar, lactose.
Prof. HORTON: You'll find that it's got a slightly sweet taste but almost more starchy taste.
GOSS: And he says some other sugars are actually tasteless, or even bitter. But no matter how they taste, Horton says, all sugars have one thing in common - their molecular shape. If you could get really small, down at the atomic level, you'd see that a natural sugar looks like a, kind of, charm bracelet.
The sugar bracelet is made of carbon atoms and the charms dangling off the sides are hydrogens and oxygens. So what does Splenda, the artificial sugar, look like? Same-sized bracelet, but the charms are different.
To illustrate, Horton picks up a model of sucrose - that's table sugar - swaps out a few atoms and transforms it into Splenda.
Prof. HORTON: We just popped that oxygen off and this chemical process, (untelligible) chlorine on there, three chlorines, and it is 500 times as sweet as sucrose.
GOSS: Now it turns out Americans really liked the idea that Splenda is made out of natural sugar. When Splenda first went on the market six years ago, it was promoted as, made from sugar so it tastes like sugar, but it's not sugar.
Early sales were disappointing. Then Splenda dropped that last line. The motto became, made from sugar so it tastes like sugar. Sales shot up.
But critics said the simplified slogan tricks consumers. It makes them think Splenda is real table sugar. The battle ended up in court. So how would chemist Derek Horton rule? Is Splenda sugar because it's made from sugar?
Prof. HORTON: The chemist or the biochemist would say this is a sugar. It has carbons and hydrogens, oxygens in those proportions. And we accept that many different sugars have small modifications of that.
GOSS: So Horton probably would side with Splenda. But he says Splenda's slogan is a little misleading.
Prof. HORTON: Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar. That is a non sequitur. I would have no problem with that if they said, and, instead of so. But you could make all kinds of things from sugar that don't taste like sugar. This one just happens to taste like sugar.
GOSS: So Splenda is a sugar. It's just not the kind you crave.
Addy Goss, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Coming up, the sweet recollections of a lawyer who worked for FDR on the occasion of his retirement at the age of 95.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.