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Consumer Reports

Splenda may cause revolution in sweetening diet soda | (KRT) Is Splenda in your glass?

It might be soon. America's soft-drink makers - in the biggest revolution in diet sodas since the 1980s - are trying out replacements for aspartame, the nation's most popular artificial sweetener.

The leading contender is Splenda, the brand name for a chemically engineered version of real sugar that humans can taste but can't absorb as calories.

"Clearly, the entire industry is looking and exploring other sweetener options," said Mike McGrath, president of Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. "Consumers are more interested in diet options than they were 18 to 24 months ago."

The Plano, Texas-based company already is using Splenda - generically known as sucralose - in two of its brands, Diet Rite Cola and Diet Royal Crown Cola. It's also considering making the switch in Diet 7Up.

"Testing is ongoing," said Michael Martin, Dr Pepper/Seven Up's director of corporate communications. "The first and foremost criteria will be taste and how that comes across to consumers." A decision is expected next year.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi also are experimenting with Splenda on a more limited basis.

The sweetener is in a Diet Coke produced in Japan and in a new canned milk drink produced by Coca-Cola called Swerve. Pepsi is using a cocktail of artificial sweeteners that includes sucralose in the Diet Pepsi Slurpees introduced this summer at 7-Eleven stores.

Industry experts say these efforts could be the start of the biggest change in the diet soft drink market since aspartame - whose best-known brand names are NutraSweet and Equal - supplanted saccharine in the 1980s.

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"All the big beverage companies are looking at a range of options for using the new sweeteners on the market," said John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade publication Beverage Digest.

Other new sweeteners that could end up in your diet soda are acesulfame potassium, also known as Ace-K; alitame; and neotame.

"A bunch of new sweeteners have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for use in beverages," said Sicher. "Splenda is one; Ace-K and neotame have all been approved in the last several years.

"I can't predict what companies are going to do, but all of the big beverage companies are looking at a range of options for using the new sweeteners."

Splenda is the front-runner because its manufacturer, McNeil Nutritionals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has aggressively marketed the sweetener since the FDA approved it five years ago.

"We've grown to be included in 3,000 products worldwide," said Monica Neufang, a McNeil spokeswoman.

Splenda is already the No. 1 artificial sweetener sold at supermarkets, with a 33.7 percent market share as of May 18, according to Information Resources Inc.

The longtime leader, Equal, is No. 2 with 27.2 percent of sales, and No. 3 is the saccharin product Sweet `N Low, with 18.5 percent.

One of Splenda's chief advantages over aspartame is its taste. "Splenda is made out of sugar," said Martin of Dr Pepper/Seven Up. "It doesn't have the stigma of an aftertaste that some other artificial sweeteners have."

Beverage makers also like that Splenda reportedly retains its taste longer than most other low-calorie sweeteners.

"It has the positive attribute of stabilizing the taste profile of the beverage so the flavor lasts longer," Martin said. "With aspartame, over time the sweetener attributes degrade."

Aspartame has been the low-calorie sweetener of choice for soft-drink makers since the early '80s, when saccharin was labeled as a carcinogen after lab rats developed bladder cancer when exposed to it.

Those experiments were discredited in the 1990s when it was revealed the rats were forced to drink the equivalent of 800 cans of diet soda a day. But by then, soft drink formulas - and consumer tastes - were settled on aspartame.

Some industry experts predict manufacturers will mix Splenda with a variety of low-calorie sweeteners until they find the right formula.

"When you start to blend these sweeteners together you can provide a product that has the closest taste profile compared to what it would be like if you used sugar," said Sebastian Bizzari, senior market analyst with SRI International of Menlo Park, Calif. "You're improving the taste of the final product, and you're most likely saving costs on sweeteners. And you're also probably improving stability."

Martin said there's also a concern that McNeil won't be able to produce enough Splenda to fill America's diet soda cans.

"The fact of the matter is there is only so much sucralose or Splenda that is produced because of manufacturing capacity," he said. "But we've got to have the right flavor profile. It's got to be accepted by the consumer."

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services