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Andrew Briscoe

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Consumers Are Confused: Decoding Artificial Sweeteners

Posted: 09/01/10 12:23 PM ET

"So the last thing I had time to do was to stand in a grocery store aisle squinting at ingredients that I couldn't pronounce to figure out whether something was healthy or not."

That statement probably sums up how most parents have felt in recent years at the grocery store.

But "most parents" didn't make the statement; it was made by the "First Parent," Michelle Obama.

August marks the five-year anniversary of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) receipt of a petition to help clear up some of the confusion, but for five years now, the Agency has been silent on the petition. And parents are still squinting and confused.

The petition in question would require food manufacturers to list very plainly the multitude of artificial sweeteners included in food and drinks, many of which sound like they belong more in a chemistry book than in grocery store.

For example, acesulfame k, saccharin, neotame, and sucralose .

A recent Harris Interactive poll shows that the majority of American parents want to avoid feeding artificial and man-made sweeteners like these to their children, yet few can identify them on the label.

Isomalt, for example, was only recognized by 6 percent, and just 1 percent had ever heard of neotame.

As for the sweeteners that people have heard of, like aspartame (67 percent), things are getting more and more confusing every day. Ajinomoto, a Japanese company that is the world's biggest aspartame producer, announced a name change for the sweetener late last year. AminoSweet, the new name, could start showing up on packages soon, especially since a major food manufacturer just announced it is teaming up with Ajinomoto (they produce other favorites like MSG, too) to develop products.

And forget about recognizing aspartame on restaurant tables. In addition to the recognizable blue packets, Equal--the brand name for aspartame--will soon come in pink and yellow packets too.

No wonder consumers are confused.

Of course, there's one thing consumers have been very clear about. They prefer all-natural ingredients like sugar for their families.

And who can blame them?

Dr. Oz, made famous by Oprah, picks all-natural sugar over artificial sweeteners, calling the latter "head-fake" foods. "The brain tastes something sweet," Dr. Oz said, "but there are no calories, so [the body] craves calories to fill the void."

Effectively, "sugar-free" can lead to weight gain.

So how can consumers avoid those artificial sweeteners if they are effectively buried on the back of ingredient labels? That's where the FDA comes in.

By approving the petition that languished under the previous administration, the FDA could very clearly list artificial sweeteners on the front of a package--just like they do in Canada. Then shoppers would know exactly what they were getting and could make the choice that's right for their families.

Luckily, the First Family seems willing to do something to end the confusion, and last time I checked, they have some say over the FDA.