Honest Advertising & Artificial Sweeteners
From today’s New York Times: Makers of Artificial Sweeteners Go to Court
The makers of Equal are suing the makers of Splenda over Splenda’s tagline: “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”
The maker of Equal contends that Splenda has been misleading millions of consumers by fostering the notion, through television and print advertising, that Splenda is made from sugar and is natural. Splenda’s maker counters that the process to make the sweetener does indeed start with sugar.
The court case apparently hings on the meaning of the phrase “made from.” The science is a little complicated, but basically the idea is that the process for making Splenda starts with real sugar, and then adds chlorine atoms to the sugar molecules…through which process sugar (chemically known as sucrose) ceases to be sugar and becomes a novel substance known as sucralose (which is much sweeter than sucrose, but contains no usable calories). So, the question is whether that makes it true, or false, or just misleading, to say that Splenda is “made from” sugar. The process certainly begins with sugar. But to say that Splenda is “made from” sugar is a bit like saying that a certain bit of table salt (sodium chloride) was “made from” hydrochloric acid (because a chemical process that uses sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid can be used to “build” sodium chloride chemically). Would people be frightened if told that your table salt was “made from” hydrochloric acid? Probably, at least until someone explained how little that chemical fact matters.
But let’s look again at that tagline: “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”
It’s important to see that Splenda’s tagline makes 3 separate claims. Two of those claims are obvious: it claims that Splenda is made from sugar and it claims that Splenda tastes like sugar. The dispute is over the first claim; no one seems to dispute the 2nd. But there’s a third claim, namely a causal claim about what it is that results in Splenda tasting like sugar. And the claim is that being made from sugar is what makes Splenda taste like sugar.
The problem is that being made from sugar (in the sense of “made” apparentely intended here) is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause something to taste like sugar. It’s not necessary, because there are other ways to make sucralose, ways that don’t begin with natural sugar. And it’s not sufficient, because there are presumably lots of chemicals that could be made from degraded sucrose molecules that wouldn’t taste at all like sugar.
So, even if we accept the dubious claim that Splenda is “made from” sugar in some meaningful sense, we certainly shouldn’t accept the causal claim about what it is that results in the product’s flavour.
(This blog posting is dedicated to the students in my Critical Thinking class!)