Sugar replacements have existed for decades, sweetening everything from black coffee to baked goods. But some leave an aftertaste. Most don't hold up well when used for baking.
Then came Splenda, which hit U.S. supermarket shelves in 2000 at a time when Americans were concerned about their health and dieting was on the rise. Splenda, brand name for the substitute sweetener sucralose, is the only no-calorie substitute made from sugar.
It's quickly become the hottest sugar replacement on the market, appealing to low-carbohydrate followers with its sugar-like taste, but without the calories or carbohydrates.
Now Splenda is making inroads into the mainstream food market, popping up in more than 3,500 products worldwide from ice cream to sodas. And it's aiming for more: Coming this summer is a baking product that is part sugar, part sucralose.
"Splenda is enjoying at the moment a huge honeymoon period," said Dean Rotbart, executive editor of LowCarbiz, a Denver-based weekly online trade newsletter.
Judy Doherty, a self-proclaimed sweets lover from Florida, already makes her puddings, chocolate cakes and peach cobblers with Splenda. Doherty, who uses the sugar substitute to help cut calories, was initially skeptical about its taste claims, but now uses it in all her recipes.
"One time I used it in a birthday cake and no one even knew I did it," she said.
McNeil Nutritionals, the Fort Washington, Pennsylvania-based unit of Johnson & Johnson that makes Splenda, has long touted its baking abilities as a major advantage over competitors.
On Thursday, McNeil will announce a new baking alternative aimed at consumers who normally would never think of substituting sugar. McNeil said Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking can do everything baking sugar does such as browning baked goods. McNeil says a half cup of the hybrid sweetener equals a cup of sugar in recipes.
McNeil President Colin Watts says market research predicts more than two-thirds of consumers would choose the new Splenda baking product over sugar.
Of course, there's a price. The new Splenda product, set to hit store shelves in August comes in one-kilogram (two-pound) bags with a recommended price of $6.29 to $6.49, nearly five times more expensive than sugar but cheaper than the original Splenda.
Splenda's main rival, Equal, an aspartame sweetener made by Chicago-based Merisant Worldwide Inc., has launched a reduced-calorie baking product in Europe under the brand Canderel. Earlier this year, Merisant said it would sell the product in the United States in the fall under the brand Equal Sugar Lite. Unlike Splenda, the new Equal product is a mix of sugar and two sweeteners, including aspartame.
Since Splenda has no calories, it zips through the body without being absorbed. A recent survey of 1,200 adults in the United States found 85 percent consume low-calorie and reduced-sugar foods and drinks on a regular basis, according to Calorie Control Council, a nonprofit trade association.
This summer, Coca-Cola and Pepsi will roll out dueling mid-calorie sodas that claim to taste like their flagship drinks, but with half the calories, carbs and sugar. The sweetness from the new carbonated beverages is supplemented with Splenda.
For the past two years, Splenda has claimed the top spot in the $325 million U.S. retail market for sugar substitutes, eclipsing longtime leader Equal. Splenda captured 43 percent of sales in the 52 weeks ending May 16, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm.
"Artificial sweetener companies have a competitor that is playing in an arena that they've never had to play in before," said Ed Kuehnle, president of IRI North America.
However, Merisant said Equal is still the global leader of low-calorie tabletop sweeteners.
The Food and Drug Administration so far has approved five sugar substitutes for general use including saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose and neotame.
Of the sweeteners, sucralose, discovered in 1976, is the only one made from table sugar — created by chemically altering sucrose.
Diabetics have long used sugar substitutes. But with more people looking to keep their waistlines in check without abandoning their favorite food, sweeteners are gaining wider popularity.
While too much sugar can add empty calories and pounds, health experts point out that eating sugar-free food alone will not help you lose weight if you don't cut calories or increase exercise. They point to the fat-free phenomenon when people started eating bags of fat-free food without paying attention to the calories per serving.
"It's not giving you a license to eat more necessarily just because it's sugar-free," said nutritionist Christina Stark of Cornell University.