Nobody questions whether Tate & Lyle’s chemists actually do make sucralose from cane sugar, or sucrose. All McNeil will say about how they do that is to describe “a patented, multi-step process that selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms.” In more specific chemical terms: Eight of the sucrose molecule’s 22 hydrogen atoms are paired with oxygen atoms as so-called hydroxyl groups, OH. Tate & Lyle’s chemists replace three of those eight hydroxyl groups with chlorine atoms. (My guess is they do it by treating sucrose with hydrogen chloride.)
But isn’t chlorine harmful to humans and animals and damaging to the environment?
In some forms, yes. For example, most common insecticides contain chlorine atoms in their molecules. And polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial byproduct, are among the most persistent environmental pollutants. But in other compounds, such as sodium chloride (table salt), the chlorine is not only harmless but essential to our health.
The Sugar Association’s Web site makes the calculatedly alarming statement that when eating Splenda, consumers are “actually eating chlorine.” Well, la-de-da. So are the consumers who are “actually eating” salt. My point is that chlorine is a common and versatile element that appears in hundreds of compounds with hundreds of different properties – good, bad and indifferent.
So here is the weapon I offer to the Splenda forces: The Sugar Association’s fright tactic against “eating chlorine” is misleading and disingenuous. And my chemical weapon for the Equal, NutraSweet and Sugar Association forces: Splenda’s slogan, “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar,” is also misleading and disingenuous.
The lawyers may argue until they’re blue in the face about whether Splenda really tastes like sugar, and I’m sure that a witness could be found to testify that it tastes like salt. But what does “tastes like” mean, anyway? Does it mean “tastes exactly like” or “tastes similar to”?
But taste is not the point. To a chemist, it’s the word “so” in the slogan. It implies that the taste of sucrose survives its chemical transformation into sucralose. But the implication that Splenda tastes like sugar because it was made from sugar flies in the face of what we know about chemical change: that changing any part of a molecule must invariably change its properties.
I can take some sugar into the laboratory, modify it chemically and wind up with something that tastes like almost anything you’d want – or wouldn’t want. For example, with nothing but a little sulfuric acid, I can turn sucrose into a steaming, seething, black mass that would dissolve your teeth if you tried to eat it.
So while I will swallow Splenda itself without concern (the Food and Drug Administration’s imprimatur is good enough for me), I cannot swallow its slogan. I believe it is indeed misleading, just as alleged by the anti-Splenda forces. And while I’m at it, because all sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, etc.) have chemical names ending in -ose, naming the product sucralose is, again, disingenuous. Sweet it is, but a sugar it isn’t.