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Sugar Substitute : NutraSweet: A Big Taste of Success

Times Staff Writer

NutraSweet entered the American diet in 1981 in tiny packets of Equal sweetener. Then it found its way into hot chocolate and iced tea.

By last fall, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and 7 Up had decided to sweeten their diet soft drinks entirely with NutraSweet.

Today, NutraSweet seems to be everywhere and has become part of the vocabulary of American consumers. The low-calorie sugar substitute is in more than 80 products, including aspirin-free Tempra chewable tablets for children, Metamucil laxative and Bartender’s brand whiskey sour mix. It has made possible sugar-free versions of such old-time favorites as Jell-O, Kool-Aid, Ovaltine, Hills Bros. flavored coffees and chewing gum from Wrigley’s.

The sweetener, known generically as aspartame, is now used in 40 other countries, and an estimated 100 million people have tried products containing it.

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Spectacular Sales

In the four years since its approval by the Food and Drug Administration, NutraSweet sales have climbed spectacularly to $585 million last year from $13 million--proving a boon to manufacturer G. D. Searle & Co.

Some companies have found that the introduction of NutraSweet in certain products can almost single-handedly reverse a trend of declining or languishing sales. At General Foods, for example, NutraSweet has breathed new life into its D-Zerta brand low-calorie gelatin, while virtually creating another product--Crystal Light, a powdered diet soft drink that has become a best-seller in the United States.

NutraSweet rates as a spectacular success story in the field of low-calorie sweeteners where two predecessors, cyclamate and saccharin, have encountered well-publicized problems.

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Cyclamate was widely used until it was banned by the FDA in 1969 after studies showed that it could cause cancer in rats. Last June, however, the FDA’s Cancer Assessment Committee said experiments since then “indicate that cyclamate is not carcinogenic.” The National Academy of Sciences is reviewing the matter.

Saccharine Saved

Saccharin was saved in 1977 from a similar FDA ban because of public outcry. Congress then passed a law mandating that products containing saccharin bear a label warning that the sweetener had been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Its period of fast growth came to a halt.

To be sure, NutraSweet has not been without its own health-related controversy. It took Searle 16 years of testing and review to win government approval to market the product.

Since NutraSweet became commercially available, more than 600 consumers have complained of headaches, dizziness and other symptoms after consuming NutraSweet. Last November, however, a study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found no evidence of a direct link between the symptoms and NutraSweet. The study also recommended further clinical studies.

NutraSweet’s popularity, both with consumers and food companies, is due in large measure to the unusual marketing approach of manufacturer Searle. The Skokie, Ill.-based company has spent heavily on a carefully crafted plan to market directly to consumers.

While most food ingredients are known simply by their chemical names, Searle christened its sweetener NutraSweet--deliberately choosing a non-scientific name with a healthy sound that would set its product apart from cyclamates and saccharin. It also developed a distinctive NutraSweet logo for use on packaging.

Generic Name

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The generic name of aspartame isn’t mentioned in NutraSweet advertising--an omission that sugar producers have complained about in a petition to the Federal Trade Commission.

If Searle does its job of creating consumer awareness of NutraSweet, food manufacturers need only mention the sweetener’s name in their advertising or on packaging for consumers “to know and understand the benefits of NutraSweet,” according to Timothy Healy, Searle’s vice president of marketing.

Searle this year will spend $30 million on U.S. advertising alone to create that awareness. When combined with other food advertising in which NutraSweet is mentioned, total 1985 ad expenditures are expected to run between $100 million and $120 million.

“We could have simply, anonymously and blindly, put out the product, but it would have taken years for people to discover that a whole new choice was out there,” says Robert Shapiro, president of Searle’s NutraSweet group. “We decided to deal with it head-on. All our marketing program has done is to diffuse news of NutraSweet more than would otherwise be the case.”

NutraSweet’s main appeal to consumers is taste. In taste tests, consumers have repeatedly shown a preference for foods or drinks sweetened entirely with NutraSweet rather than a blend of saccharin and NutraSweet.

Brand Loyalty

Nurturing brand loyalty is crucial to Searle, whose NutraSweet patent expires in 1992. If NutraSweet can dominate the low-calorie sugar-substitute market, Searle can more easily hold back domestic and foreign competitors, some of which are planning to introduce their own sweeteners as early as 1988. Others are expected to be ready to market improved versions of aspartame once Searle’s patent expires.

Searle executives briefly explored the idea of selling the company, industry observers say, because of the patent expiration. Its recent surprise decision to abandon a sale led to speculation by analysts that Searle was trying to exact too high a price. Searle declines comment, saying only that the board of directors decided the company should remain independent after reviewing a number of alternatives.

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NutraSweet’s increased use in consumer products stems in part from its greater availability, which has brought its price down. Soft drink makers, for example, switched their diet brands to 100% NutraSweet after Searle offered them NutraSweet at $55 a pound, compared to $90 previously, according to Jesse Meyers, publisher of Beverage Digest. Still, NutraSweet costs more than 20 times as much as saccharin.

The higher cost, however, is typically offset by big increases in sales of products containing the sweetener.

New Market

For General Foods, NutraSweet has opened a new, profitable market in low-calorie foods.

The company shied away from diet foods when cyclamates were banned and it was forced to reformulate its D-Zerta brand gelatin with saccharin. Sales fell steadily for 10 years until D-Zerta switched to 100% NutraSweet, which initially helped boost unit sales 30% to 40%.

Ray Viault, assistant general manager of General Foods’ desserts division, says D-Zerta’s upward climb has been slowed by the recent introduction by General Foods of sugar-free Jell-O, which, he says, is growing by “leaps and bounds.”

Similarly, NutraSweet enabled General Foods to expand its Kool-Aid line, which previously was available in only a presweetened sugar and a no-sugar version. Kool-Aid with NutraSweet generated nearly $150 million in new sales during its first year of distribution, bringing the brand’s total sales to about $650 million last year.

General Foods’ powdered soft drink mix Crystal Light didn’t exist before 1983. Today, it has sales of more than $150 million annually. Based upon gallons consumed, Crystal Light drinks now rank third behind top-selling Diet Coke and second-place Diet Pepsi.

The biggest boon to NutraSweet has been the mass reformulation of diet drinks to 100% NutraSweet. The diet beverage market uses two-thirds of all low-calorie artificial sweeteners in the United States.

Soft Drink Consumers

Americans consume an average of 460 12-ounce soft drinks annually--about 110 of which are sugar-free, according to Meyers at Beverage Digest.

Unlike cyclamates and saccharin, which are petrochemical-based and non-caloric, NutraSweet yields calories because it is composed of two amino acids commonly found in proteins and metabolized by the body. The sweetener yields four calories per gram, about the same as one gram of sugar. But since NutraSweet is 180 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, far less of it is needed.

However, NutraSweet loses sweetness over time and at high temperatures. As a result, it is not used in baked or cooked products. Diet drink makers using the sweetener must make sure their products hit store shelves within seven to 10 days of production.

In contrast, both Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi served from the fountain still contain a blend of NutraSweet and saccharin. The companies must use the blend because it is better suited for the longer shelf life and storage requirements of the syrup used in fountain drinks.

“Even if we could compensate for these problems,” a Coke spokesman said, “the supply of aspartame at this time is not great enough to ensure an adequate supply for 100% aspartame-sweetened fountain products.”

Safety Concerns

The widespread use in soft drinks has helped rekindle some safety concerns about the sweetener.

The FDA has set the allowable daily intake of aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilo of body weight and has assigned Searle to monitor NutraSweet consumption. Searle says a 132-pound person would have to drink 18 12-ounce cans of a diet soft drink or use 86 packets of Equal to reach the allowable daily intake level set by the FDA. Data on actual intake levels, according to Searle, indicates that a person who consumes an average amount of NutraSweet reaches only about 3% of the intake level.

NutraSweet is broken down by the body into two amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and methyl alcohol, more commonly known as methanol or wood alcohol. The two amino acids occur naturally in proteins and carbohydrates.

Individuals suffering from phenylketonuria, a rare hereditary disease, cannot metabolize phenylalanine. Consequently, all products containing NutraSweet must bear the warning: “Phenylketonurics: Contains phenylalanine.”

Some researchers have raised concerns about whether consumption of high levels of NutraSweet might have negative effects on body chemistry. Dr. Richard Wurtman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, questions whether an imbalance of amino acids, triggered by aspartame, might affect brain chemistry and consequently behavior.

Methanol Concern

Woodrow Monte, associate professor of food sciences at Arizona State University, is concerned about the effect of methanol, which is known to cause blindness.

Searle’s Shapiro says the idea that an imbalance in amino acids might affect behavior has not been tested. He adds that “the amount of methanol you get from products (with NutraSweet) is far less than that from vegetables or fruits, which also break down (in the body) into methanol. Ounce for ounce, tomato juice has four times the amount of methanol as those foods sweetened by aspartame.”

Meanwhile, Shapiro acknowledges that the November study by the Centers for Disease Control “did not disprove the possibility some person somewhere may be sensitive to aspartame.” The study was based solely on interviews with a third of 600 consumers who complained of headaches, dizziness and other symptoms after consuming NutraSweet.

In an article published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Nelson Lee Novick, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, said he believes that he has uncovered a link between NutraSweet and allergic symptoms in one patient.

The 22-year-old woman had been consuming an average of four 12-ounce cans of a saccharin-sweetened diet soft drink on a daily basis for six years. Two weeks after she switched to a diet brand sweetened only with aspartame, she had lumps on her legs.

Lumps Disappeared

When she stopped drinking the NutraSweet-flavored soda over a four-week period, the lumps cleared up. They reappeared when she began drinking the beverage again.

In his study, Novick gave the woman pure aspartame capsules, supplied by Searle, in dosages that were deemed equivalent to the amount contained in the soft drink. Within 10 days, the lumps reappeared. She has stopped drinking the aspartame-sweetened beverage.

Shapiro contends that, since the patient was not tested with a placebo as well, the researcher cannot assume that the symptoms were not psychologically induced.

Meanwhile, Shapiro says that Searle is conducting various research projects involving aspartame and issues relating to nutrition, metabolism and pharmacology. The company recently submitted a proposal to the FDA for a further study of human sensitivity to NutraSweet.

The FDA, Searle and food manufacturers who use NutraSweet all have repeatedly asserted that the sweetener is one of the most researched food additives.

“It isn’t that the question of safety persists,” says Shapiro of Searle. “The same questions are being raised repeatedly and answered repeatedly. It is the same people who keep raising the same questions.”

Adds Viault of General Foods, “It looks to a reasonable man that this is a clean sweetener.”


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