Stealth Sweetners Spread Sneakily in the Supermarket

Last Updated May 6, 2011 12:49 AM EDT

If you're the sort of grocery shopper who likes to avoid artificial sweeteners, you may want to bring along a magnifying glass on your next trip to the supermarket. That's because lots of products you wouldn't expect are secretly sweetened with aspartame, sucralose and other chemical sugar-replacers.

And this trend, underway for some time, may only accelerate because of recent negative attention heaped on sugar. In a recent NYT Magazine story, science writer Gary Taubes suggested that sugar (a catch-all term that also includes high fructose corn syrup and other caloric sweeteners) may be the main culprit in causing obesity and diabetes. And last week the government issued strict (yet voluntary) guidelines on foods that can be marketed to kids, setting a limit of no more than 13 grams of added sugar per serving.

To disclose or not to disclose
The Sugar Association, which represents growers and producers of old fashioned sugar, has been nervously watching the stealth sweetener trend for some time and has petitioned the FDA to require food manufacturers to clearly note on the front of packages their use of artificial sweeteners. But it doesn't appear that the FDA considers this to be a pressing issue. The group's initial petition was filed five years ago.

It's not hard to see the benefits of a clearly visible label for many shoppes. The presence of hidden sweeteners shows up in products that don't appear to be 'lite' or 'low calorie' and don't even reveal hints like 'reduced sugar.' Many of them would like you to think that they're quite healthy, such as Pepsi's (PEP) Quaker High Fiber Instant Oatmeal, sweetened with sugar and the chemical sucralose, which is so buried in the ingredient list that many people probably wouldn't notice it even if they were looking:

WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS, MALTODEXTRIN, SUGAR, SALT, CALCIUM CARBONATE, CINNAMON, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, GUAR GUM, OAT FLOUR, SOY LECITHIN, SUCRALOSE, NIACINAMIDE*, REDUCED IRON, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE*, CARAMEL COLOR, RIBOFLAVIN*, THIAMIN MONONITRATE*, FOLIC ACID*.
Confusingly, Quaker's non-high fiber instant oatmeal varieties don't contain an artificial sweetener.

Same with General Mills' (GIS) original Fiber One cereal. Who would presume that it's sweetened entirely with the controversial sweetener aspartame? Some Fiber One versions have sucralose and some have no artificial sweeteners. Time for that magnifying glass.

There are too many examples to list, but here's a few more:

Adding to the confusion is that fact that a lot of people aren't conditioned to recognize artificial sweeteners on ingredient labels. Most people know what Splenda is but, according to research done by the Sugar Association, only 45% would recognize its generic name sucralose. Awareness of something like acesulfame potassium is even lower, at 8%.

Image from The Sugar Association
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