A SWEETENER'S SOUR SIDE Sucanat's popularity is unquestioned, but not its nutrition claims


IT IS NOT: an artificial sweetener, sugar substitute, low-cal sweetener, raw sugar or the same as brown sugar.

It is: a brown sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane juice that smells and tastes like either brown sugar or molasses, depending on whom you ask.

Sucanat has taken the food world by storm.

*It's in a cookie recipe created by the late Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, former chef of the Ballroom in New York City.

*It's in health food stores -- as a raw ingredient or in herbal cough drops, cocoa mix, bran flakes cereal, ginger snap cookies, tofu ,, chocolate products, candy bars and in ice cream with names like Chocolate Chocolate Chip Euphoria and Good & Gooey Mocha Almond Fudge.

Yet most people have never heard of it or are totally confused about what it is. Although it has been for sale in Europe for more than a decade and in the United States for six years, it has been promoted heavily here for just the past year.

The Pronatec Corp., Sucanat's sole importer, advertises the product as a "100 percent organic whole food sweetener" that is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. Nothing is added, only the water is removed, meaning Sucanat is processed less than raw sugar, brown sugar, turbinado or refined white sugar. And it's pricey -- $3.99 for a 2-pound container compared with 93 cents for a 2-pound bag of white sugar.

Promotional materials claim that Sucanat is the only all-natural organic sweetener that retains all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that are essential to good health and which occur naturally in sugar cane. In fact, the company claims that up to 2.5 percent of Sucanat's volume is the sugar cane's vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

"The aspartame [Equal] people will tell you they are non-nutritive and that certainly sounds better than chemical," said R. Bruce Kirk, president and chief operating officer of Pronatec, who defines the sweetener world as being divided into nutritive and non-nutritive segments.

"I am in the nutritive world and I want Sucanat to be the most nutritious sweetener around. There is no other natural sweetener that has the nutritive value that we have, including trace elements like selenium. We consider ourselves the most nutritive sweetener in the market and don't take pot shots at anyone else. We just put the comparisons out."

Yet it is nutritional claims and comparisons that got Pronatec in a battle with the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently, a conflict that was reported mainly in the trade press.

The CSPI, a non-profit consumer interest group in Washington, issued a press release in March calling the advertising for the product deceptive. Michael Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, said he filed complaints about the company's labeling and advertising with the Food and Drug Administration and the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business .. Bureaus. His complaint was aimed at a full-page advertisement that had appeared in East-West Journal and Natural Foods Merchandiser and claimed, "Sucanat has more calcium than broccoli; more vitamin A than brussels sprouts; more iron than raisins; more potassium than potato; and about the same vitamin C as fresh tangerines."

Although the advertisement did not disclose the basis for comparison, Mr. Jacobson said the only appropriate comparison one real serving of Sucanat (1 teaspoon) vs. several ounces of fruit or vegetable. By that measure, he added, brussels sprouts, broccoli and tangerines contain far more vitamins and minerals than Sucanat.

Pronatec's Mr. Kirk said the advertisement, which showed a variety of breads and desserts, used a 1 cup serving as a basis for comparison because it was a promotion for the beginning of baking season.

"We didn't even get the courtesy of a copy of the press release from CSPI," Mr. Kirk said. "I called Michael Jacobson and told him I had two concerns. No. 1 there was no scientific data to support the conclusions in the press release and No. 2 some of the comments and conclusions in his press release were unrelated to the complaint he sent to the FDA and the Better Business Bureau.

"In his view, our labeling was incorrect because we used a 1 cup serving. We sent him all our scientific documentation including the section of the USDA Handbook that we used and we asked for an immediate retraction. He decided that he didn't want to do it."

Mr. Kirk added that the company got a clean bill of health from the BBB after presenting its scientific data; the case was closed in May.

Ronald Smithies of the BBB's National Advertising Division tells the story another way.

"When we first contacted the advertiser, they told us that the ad only ran once in the fall of 1990 and they killed it," according to Mr. Smithies. "We don't take up last year's corpses. We redefined the case and found the way to the label, which had made similar claims. Their answer was they stopped using the label and we stopped at that point."

FDA refused to comment on the case.

But the CSPI's Michael Jacobson said the crux of the issue is serving size. Nobody sits down and eats a cup of sugar, he says, and when you compare the 1 teaspoon serving, only the 3 grams of carbohydrate found in Sucanat is significant. The company repackaged the product in a larger size with a new label. The controversial claims are no longer there, and the comparisons between Sucanat and other sweeteners in 1 cup servings are designated as "for baking information purposes only."

The company, according to Mr. Jacobson, was pulling the wool over the health-conscious consumers' eyes and charged a very high price for the product.

"If people want [a sweetener] with a somewhat different taste than regular sugar, then Sucanat may be fine for them and it's up to them if they want to pay the difference in cost for the difference in taste. But they shouldn't be buying this product because of its nutrient content."

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