Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints

Ages ago, I used to work for the company that made Splenda, a popular artificial sweetener that is basically sugar that’s chemically altered so that it mostly passes through your digestive system instead of being absorbed. My job at the time was to read over and sometimes respond to all sorts of consumer complaints. And as such, I got to see depressing examples of how even adults can be grotesquely ignorant of everything from chemistry to basic material physics.

For instance, we got all sorts of people writing in horrified that Splenda contains chlorine, which is dangerous and caustic gas!!!!! Now, personally, I have no idea whether Splenda is 100% safe healthwise (but then, I have no idea whether natural sugar is 100% safe healthwise either). But I do know that the hysteria over it containing chlorine, which is still being pushed by alt-med “naturopaths” (i.e. people who irrationally believe that chemistry done by human beings is somehow different and more dangerous than chemistry done in nature), is pure poppycock. Our standard response at the time was “well, while it’s true that there are chlorine atoms in the sucralose molecule, the exact same atoms, in a far higher proportion by weight, are found in salt (NaCl)!”

Today, I still just stand in amazement that anyone could be so ignorant of basic chemistry as to think that molecules somehow necessarily have all the same properties as the atoms they contain. Heck, most of the basic atoms found in organic molecules are extremely toxic in ionized or pure elemental form: raw potassium or sodium, for instance, explode when they get wet. Heck, the very things which the chlorine atoms replace in the sugar molecule, Hydroxyl groups, would be crazy bad for you en masse in their free-floating ionized form.

For goodness sakes: the whole takeaway point of molecular chemistry is that the affects and properties of molecules and elements depend crucially on their exact configuration and the sorts of bonds they can make or break. I can understand most people not remembering the exact details of things from high school chemistry, but you’d think they’d at least retain some sense of the the basic idea.

Anyway. The second most common Splenda complaint was from folks who were utterly outraged that their box of Splenda didn’t weigh pound for pound like sugar. Now, it says pretty clearly on the box that Splenda measures “cup for cup like sugar,” and this is done so that people can directly substitute it for sugar in a recipe (Splenda, unlike most other artificial sweetners, holds up taste-wise in baking applications pretty well). Since the Splenda molecule is far sweeter on the tongue than sugar, it takes far less of it to match the same sweetness. This means that it would be flatly impossible for Splenda to match sugar along all three important variables at once: sweetness per volume per pound. The solution was simply to make Splenda exactly dense enough to match sweetness and volume.

Unfortunately, by law, the package also has to say something like “equivalent sweetness to 2 pounds of sugar.” People were apparently looking at that statement, looking at the actual listed product weight, seeing that they were different, and then concluding that they had been ripped off. Somehow, the phrase “equivalent sweetness” never made them stop and think about an alternative explanation.

Of course, having to explain things like the difference between weight and volume to adults is embarrassing no matter how politely you try to phrase it. Sparing their feelings, we mostly just offered to send people more free Splenda.

Speaking of which, my favorite consumer complaint was from a guy who wrote in threatening to sue us because we had sent a free sample of Splenda to his house, addressed to his then ex-wife. His current girlfriend got pissed off when she saw it and supposedly left him.

Not knowing what else to do, I simply wrote back our standard form letter response, which was basically “Well, we hope you at least enjoyed your Splenda, and we’d be happy to send you more Splenda!

19 Responses to Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints

  1. John P says:

    Natalie Angier, in her most recent book, The Canon, has an excellent chapter on chemistry, which I found highly informative about just those aspects of chemistry that you mention, and I either ignored or forgot in high school. Molecules vs. elements. Covalent bonds, ionic bonds, etc. Good stuff. So is the rest of the book (so far, I’m still reading it).

  2. sennet says:

    I always get crazy headaches eating stuff with Splenda in it, so I avoid it. It sucks to hear that people bug you about the chlorine atom, though. :(

    Also, I know the pain of explaining weight vs. volume. Oh, mom. Why did they let you out of high school? :(

  3. Bad says:

    I always get crazy headaches eating stuff with Splenda in it,

    Headaches are one of the oddest symptoms in medicine and testing of food products. Pretty much everyone gets them no matter what they eat, but we still aren’t sure exactly what causes them physiologically, though we know a few things that can lead to them.

    In terms of the fears about Splenda (and most artificial sweeteners), when people develop so many diverse symptoms, all of which tend to be of the self-limiting and subjectively attributed, as well as matching the claimed effects of chemically very different substances (like aspartame), I tend to get skeptical of exactly what is going on: is it really the product itself, or is something else going on that’s either correlated or creating a false association? Human bodies just aren’t that different from each other that so many people should have so many different and non-overlapping reactions to the same substance (let alone having the same constellation of fears around several very chemically different substances), and the pooling of all sorts of different things into the same claimed pattern is a good way to count only coincidental “hits” while ignoring coincidental misses.

    Still, nothing is 100% “safe” or non-reactive, and regardless of the cause, there do seem to be people that react badly to this or that. Medicine still has a lot to learn.

  4. mrsneedham says:

    I wish people weren’t so flippant about artificial sweeteners. They are effecting so much more than you realize. My husband and I are big wine drinkers and we’ve noticed that recently all the wines we buy are starting to taste overly sweet (raisin). We asked a wine maker why when we went to his vineyard and he explained that all of the artificial sweeteners in peoples diets are dulling their sensitivity to sweet. To compensate they are letting grapes almost turn to raisins on the vine to get the most sugar out of them. Not only that but these chemicals stay on your tounge (hense the dulling) so that you no longer taste any of your food correctly. People also think that they are saving themselves calories by not using sugar, but because your body reacts differently to them you will consume (on avg.) 100 more calories before your brain gets the signal that you are satiated…so it doesn’t work! If you want to loose weight eat more real food and stop loading yourself full of crap. It’s so hard to find anything healthy for my children to eat that doesn’t have hfcs, aspartame, or splenda in it because all of the overweight people want to blame their childrens obesity on the food companies. When in fact the people who consume these alternatives are fat, the people who cut them from their diet are not…

    I will now step off my soap box

    • So…a wine maker said all the artificial sweeteners people have been taking are making them crave sweeter wines…
      I think-I is emphasized here as my opinion and observation:
      a) It is a well known fact that people are eating more sweeter sweets than before. ie) we are eating more sweet stuffs, and these sweets are sweeter than before.
      b) World wide, people consume “natural sugars” -fructose, sucrose, lactose you name it – far more than artificial sweetners.
      c) I have no idea why fat people are fat-even though I was one till recently, now I’m fitter with proper exercise and diet which included some amount of splenda- I think it makes more sense that they are fat therefore they eat splenda to lose weight-or so they think- than they are fat because they eat splenda.

      I must admit though, I’ve heard a very convincing argument saying how splenda can retard your ketosis rate…still I think the aforementioned effect is so trivial that actual calorie reduction from not eating real sugar is greater. Again, this is just a speculation over a speculation.

  5. Bad says:

    You’re right: artificial sweetners, especially alone, aren’t going to help anyone lose weight. Weight is still primarily about carolies in vs. calories burned, and nothing can change that. But there are a lot of people that, for instance, have diabetes and for whom cutting down on sugar does help overall. I don’t think it hurts to have as an option provided that, like any tool, people understand what it can and cannot do and what the downsides are.

    But I’m a little skeptical about the idea that the use of artifical sweetners is dulling people’s sensitivity to sweetness though: there are lots and lots of alternative reasons why sweeter wines might sell better.

  6. Bug Girl says:

    you missed the one that aspartame started as a bug killer:

    Of course, I would know that one :D

  7. Bad says:

    ” Aspertame is neuropoison.”


  8. Kaethe says:

    It’s amazing how much science people don’t know, sin’t it?

    “Weight is still primarily about calories in vs. calories burned, and nothing can change that.”

    Actually, no, it isn’t, and it never has been, although that simple model seems like it should work. For a good general overview, try Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin

    • Obviously human bodies aren’t built like machines-well they are, but are really ridiculously compared to anything we build- and there are obviously more to it than energy input, output, and storage.

      When someone is trying to lose weight, they need to consider not only the amount of calorie they are taking, but what types of calorie they are taking. Protein, lipids, carbs, and so on. From there you need to consider the respiration of each chemicals and their side effects on your body. You also need to consider metabolism, muscle mass, and so on. Oh, did I forget to mention various hormone and enzyme levels such as insulin and carnitine?

      Whilst all these factors build a detailed overview of what;s really happening to your body, it is simply impractical for the most people who are trying to get fit. I doubt even your little “Rethinking Thin” goes such complicated levels and we can say”So and so from Rethinking Thin…Actually no, it isn’t you still need to consider bla bla bla.”

      However, if we make exemption to the water content of body-because believe it or not, this is the single biggest factor in your body weight and the most difficult to predict or control- calorie in calorie out is the very bottom error margin for most diet programs: ie) there is higher chance than other diet protocols that “calories in and calories out” will work.

      Now, don’t mistake this as saying: “less calorie in, more calorie out is the most effective and easiest way to lose weight” It isn’t. You can take all those supplements and foods to boost your metabolism, go all “Super Keto” with zero carb diet, do HIITs 100s of times a week and so on…but if none of those worked for someone who actually did them, less calories in more calories out will be the only option left for them…

      And about “Surprising how much science people don’t know…isn’t it” comment, I think you are absolutely correct. However, if you are trying to imply “science people don’t know few things->actually “normal people” are smarter than them-> we should believe in our “normal senses” than the scientific theories…I think you are quite wrong. If you were just trying to say “well, he’s a scientist, but I’m going to take a pinch of salt to whatever he’s saying anyway” I think you are on a path to becoming a science person yourself.

  9. Bad says:

    I disagree: weight really IS still about calories eaten vs. burned. There are lots of complications insofar as you try to apply that model to dieting and staying on a particular diet, yes, and that’s primarily what Rethinking Thin shows, but it is still true that you cannot keep on weight if you burn more than you eat, and you cannot gain weight unless you eat more than you burn. It’s just not physically possible. The reason “eat less, exercise more” doesn’t work for most people is that they can’t actually do it, or they go overboard too fast, and send their bodies into metabolic shutdown. Anyone that tries to lose lots of weight fast, especially by dieting, is almost certainly dooming themselves to failure and misery.

    By and large, my experience is that dieting, by which I mean fad dieting, is a complete waste of time. Only exercise can make a real difference, and only a serious amount of exercise can help: making a truly serious commitment to some extended physical activity as part of your life. You just cannot tell your body that you want to lose weight by changing the amount of food you eat (though in general, it’s good to eat reasonably and healthy for other health reasons), because it resists that directly as part of its metabolic strategy.

  10. […] chemical ingredient just doesn’t matter, or that more of a good thing is always better. Not long ago, I complained that even if people don’t remember much from high-school chemistry, they should […]

  11. vivelafat says:

    Bad, you are clearly very intelligent, but I have a very hard time with the calories in/calories out equation. While what you are saying is technically correct it is not practically correct. People interpret it as you can not gain weight unless you eat more then everyone else. This is patently false. While your statement that “..it is still true that you cannot keep on weight if you burn more than you eat, and you cannot gain weight unless you eat more than you burn.” is true, we all burn calories differently, and there in lies the problem. We really don’t have a strong grasp on how to make a fat person permanently thin, or a thin person permanently fat.

  12. Bad says:

    People interpret it as you can not gain weight unless you eat more then everyone else.

    I don’t know what you mean by “everyone else” here. The only relevant person is yourself: whether your body burns more or less or about even of calories consumed. So I don’t see what’s patently false in that statement. Sure, people burn and intake calories at different rates. But the basic balance is the same.

    Where it gets hard is when you take into account all the apparent things the body and mind do in response to various changes in things like changes in caloric intake, more exercise, and so on. There seems to be lots of evidence that there are all sorts of mental and physical triggers that can get thrown out of whack, and thus frustrate attempts to change one’s body: sometimes to the point of having counter-productive effects (like huge, unavoidable cravings that lead to binging six months down the road from rapid weight loss).

  13. I have finally found an eating plan that is nutritional and also great for weight loss without feeling deprived. Thank you, Suzanne! I know some people say that weight combining is old hat and this book is just a copy of others, but sometimes it takes a famous person to get the point across. I commend you for that. I have lost 11 lbs. since I started this diet in early January after those holiday feasts took their toll. I did have the obligatory sugar withdrawal headache for one day, but after that it was easy. The weight came off gradually, but steadily. I have never been hungry. I have eaten more fruits and vegetables than I have in years and am hoping that my rising cholesterol will be abated by this eating plan. The recipes are great and even if you don’t lose weight, it seems to be a healthy eating plan. What have you got to lose?!?!?!?

  14. Knoxville Plumber…

    […]Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints « The Bad Idea Blog[…]…

  15. Where exactly did you pick up the points to create ““Tales of
    Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints The Bad Idea Blog”?
    Many thanks ,Terese

  16. TIE Institute

    Tales of Splenda: Wacky consumer scares and complaints | The Bad Idea Blog

  17. Equiv lency says:

    Friend, I know this blog was written a few years back, but I hope you are less ignorant now, than when you wrote this blog. I had been having neurological issues over the past year (burning in feet/tingling/pain). I too was skeptical of Splenda being the cause. Well guess what. I quite Splenda a 5 days ago and all the burning and tingling in my feet are gone! Did it fix all my neurological problems? Not yet. But the difference is night and day, and it’s only been 5 days thus far. I assure you my foot neuropathy is completely gone.


    Here’s the harsh reality about Splenda: there are only 2 publicly available studies for human consumption of Splenda. In these studies, no more than 38 people were tested for longer than 6 weeks. This should raise red flags in your mind. I believe only 9 studies out of 100+ studies involved humans, the rest were done on animals. There are so many unsettling things concerning Splenda’s history, if you really start digging. Anyway, I thought I would warn you and anyone else reading this blog, to think twice before using Splenda everyday. If you insist on rolling the dice with poorly tested research chemicals, please keep a health log, it will save you money and headaches if something were to happen to you due to using artificial sweeteners like Splenda.

    Everyone thinks “well its rare”, and “this won’t happen to me”, until it does, and usually by then it’s too late.

    Cheers mate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: