With no special advertising or publicity, Splenda, the sugar replacement from Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Nutritionals Worldwide division, is riding the hottest trend in food today — low-carbohydrate eating popularized by the Atkins Diet.

“It’s wild,” Colin Watts, McNeil’s president, said in a recent interview. “We’ve doubled the business within just the most recent 18 months.”

Drug maker J&J doesn’t break out Splenda’s results. But sales surpassed those of rival Equal in early 2003, and now command about a 47-percent share of U.S. sugar substitute market at retail, according to Watts. The market is worth an estimated $1 billion.

Watts, 38, forecasts that within a few years, Splenda itself will grow to at least $1 billion in sales at retail and to restaurants and other food service outlets, in part because historical sugar junkies are cutting back on calories and carbs amid the growing U.S. obesity crisis.

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