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Splenda gets mixed reviews

The new sugar substitute doesn't have an aftertaste and is good for sweetening drinks and pies, but it has drawbacks in baking.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


You've probably tasted the sugar substitute Splenda and don't even know it.

Beverages from Diet Rite, Ocean Spray, SoBe, Swiss Miss, Stewart's and even 7-Eleven's Classic Selection sugar-free sparkling water use Splenda as a sweetener. There are more than 400 products on the market, including Pedialyte Electrolyte drink and pops, that rely on Splenda to add sweetness. Splenda is the brand name for the sugar-derived substance sucralose, and that's what you'll find on ingredients lists.

Now, Splenda is available to consumers in granular form to be used in the same way as sugar in cooking, baking and sweetening drinks. With the big splash of advertising and the nationwide availability, many people might be trying Splenda for holiday baking. One big warning: read the label first and follow the tips. Splenda may taste like sugar, but it does not act exactly like it in the baking process.

Shoppers can find Splenda next to other sugar substitutes such as Sugar Twin and Equal in the baking supply aisle of most grocery stores. It comes in packets and in pourable containers. A 200-packet box is about $7, and a pourable container that equals 2 pounds of sugar is $3. Five pounds of sugar is about $2.

Splenda, unlike other artificial sweeteners, is made from sugar. To make Splenda, or sucralose, three of the hydrogen-oxygen groups in each sugar molecule are replaced with chlorine atoms. The body does not absorb sucralose, which means there are no calories to burn off and it doesn't affect blood sugar levels.

So far, Splenda does not come with any government warning labels about side effects, and the manufacturer, McNeil Specialty Products, a division of Johnson & Johnson, claims it's safe for man, pregnant woman and child. The company has hired soccer player Mia Hamm to promote the product and has an agreement with 5,200 7-Eleven stores to put packets next to Equal and Sweet 'n' Low in coffee islands.

Our taste test found that for sweetening, Splenda is excellent. There is none of the aftertaste that comes with aspartame or saccharin. In drinks, sauces, pies and puddings, you won't notice much difference.

In baking, however, you have to make adjustments to recipes to get satisfactory results. Sugar performs functions other than sweetening in baked items such as cookies and cakes: It promotes browning and adds volume. Splenda does neither. To get baked goods to brown, the maker says, add molasses (about 1 tablespoon per 1 cup of Splenda). This does add some sugar, but the overall amount is still substantially reduced. To add air, which increases volume, beat the batter longer.

"Baked goods have a very complex ratio," says Carolyn Merkel, director of research and development at McNeil Specialty Products, Splenda's maker. "The flour, fat, sugar and eggs combine in the structure, and a careful ratio defines the texture. Splenda throws off the balance."

It throws it off because Splenda is much lighter than sugar. When we poured it from the container some floated into the air. Warning: Switch off the ceiling fan in the kitchen.

We used Splenda in the Nestle Tollhouse cookie recipe on the back of the chocolate chip package. To take the test a little further, we used Sugar Twin brown sugar replacement and Egg Beaters. The Sugar Twin was probably a mistake, because there was a slight aftertaste owing to the saccharin. Brown sugar helps retain moisture in baked goods, and our cookies were a little dry. Merkel says we would have had better results by using 1 cup of Splenda and 1/2 cup of brown sugar in place of the 3/4 cup each of sugar and brown sugar called for in the recipe.

Cookie batter made with Splenda also doesn't spread and flatten in the oven. Our cookies were the same shape coming out of the oven as they were going in. Merkel suggests flattening cookies with the back of a fork, as with peanut butter cookies, before baking.

Another thing you'll notice when using Splenda is that batters will be stiffer, almost rubbery. Our batter for cranberry-oatmeal muffins had to be forcefully removed from the spoon into the baking papers. We added molasses to the mix but still did not get a golden brown on the top of the muffin. Also, the maker say that using Splenda might shorten cooking time. We found it actually took longer for the cookies and the muffins to bake. Tastewise, the cookies had better flavor than the muffins, which weren't sweet enough.

McNeil has set up a toll-free number, (800)-777-5363, and a Web site, http://www.splenda.com, to help answer consumer questions.

If you have to log on or call for help, is it even worth it to use the product?

"People use sugar in a lot different ways, and this gives them an option," Merkel says. "For a cake, you'll to work on (using Splenda). For a pie, it's transparent."

The folks at Splenda expect that early applications will be for sweetening drinks and cereals, and then as consumers get more acquainted with the product, they'll be more comfortable using it for baking.

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