Consumers don't know what they are eating in the way of artificial sweeteners, president and CEO Andy Briscoe told FoodNavigator-USA.com. He claims that most people recognize just five of the 23 sweeteners on the market in the US. The 23 sweeteners include caloric sweeteners such as sugar, honey and dextrose, sugar alcohols/polyols and artificial sweeteners, the best known of which are aspartame, saccharine and sucralose. Four other artificial sweeteners have yet to be approved by the FDA.
The association, which has long battled against making sugar a scapegoat for the obesity crisis, maintains that sugar is superior to other sweeteners as it is an entirely natural substance.
Most people estimate the calories in a teaspoonful of sugar to be around 76 calories, but in fact it contains just 15 calories. On learning that the true calorific value is so low, they tend to wonder why we need artificial sweeteners at all, said Briscoe.
Ferne Hudson, a spokesperson for Tate & Lyle, which makes a range of both natural sugars, polyols and artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, said: "We believe in providing a choice to the consumer, and that there is a market for both sugar and sucralose."
She said that sucralose can be useful as part of a calorie controlled diet or for diabetics, and that it offers excellent functionality for food formulators. It has been tested and approved by the FDA and other agencies around the world and none has ruled it to be unsafe for any sector of the population.
The Sugar Association is currently embroiled in a legal battle with McNeil, marketer of the Splenda, over an advertising campaign that said the branded sucralose product is "made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar".
The Association says the slogan misleads consumers into thinking the artificial sweetener is natural.
Splenda.com states that the sweetener is made "through a patented, multi-step procedure that starts with sugar and converts it to a no calorie, non-carbohydrate sweetener. The procedure selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms."
USDA figures show that sucrose consumption has gone down by 40 percent over the past 30 years, from 95.7 pounds per capita per year in 1974 to 61.9 pounds in 2005 - and the rise of artificial sweeteners could have a lot to do with it.
Specifically, the Sugar Association believes that sugar growers in the United States are suffering financially because of consumer confusion thinking Splenda is natural.
Briscoe points out that obesity has increased over this time, which he says exonerates sugar as the cause for the current crisis.
"If obesity has trended up, sugar, therefore, isn't the problem. That is what the data shows," he said.
He also pointed out that sugar has been in the marketplace for well over 2000 years, since 375 BC. Obesity, on the other hand, is a relatively new problem.
"Sugar is part of a balanced diet and healthy diet," he said, drawing attention to a study conducted by the Institutes of Medicine in 2002, which indicated that consuming up to 25 percent of our caloric intake in added sugars does not displace other nutrients in the diet. At present, sugar makes up 15 to 16 percent.
But the American Dietetic Association begs to differ. It falls into the World Health Organization camp, maintaining that sugar can add empty calories and displace other more nutritious foods. The WHO recommends that people aim to reduce intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of caloric intake to reduce the risk of obesity.
When it issued this recommendation in 2003, the Sugar Association responded fiercely, claiming that the WHO's reasoning was scientifically flawed.
Briscoe blames the plummeting popularity of sugar largely on the artificial sweetener industry:
"There are 23 other sweeteners in the US, which would like to displace sugar or justify a reason for displacing sugar."
Not only are consumers looking for a sweetener that looks like sugar, tastes like sugar but has no calories, the industry is also striving for that perfect food.
Briscoe equates the anti-sugar movement to the low-carb fad, which shot to popularity in 2000 but waned after two or three years when consumers lost interest and realized there are health implications to cutting carbohydrates out of their diet.
He predicts that in five years time, when obesity has not gone down, people will realize they were misguided about sugar.
As for the best way to tackle obesity, Briscoe's strategy is less about types of foods consumed and more about increasing physical activity and exercising portion control.
"It is a matter of calories in versus calories out."