Weighing the sweeteners

Sugar or high fructose corn syrup? For some it's a matter of health, for others, it's flavor

March 17, 2010|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

Sarah Higgins stocks up on kosher-for- Passover Coke this time of year, and even though she's not Jewish, her shopping habits are a matter of faith.

She believes in sugar.

And the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens regular soda?

"It is the devil," said Higgins, 30, of Owings Mills. "It's in everything. If you were to go to your fridge right now, it has corn syrup in everything. It's in A-1. It's in salad dressing. I spend so much time in the supermarket - flip it over, if it has high-fructose corn syrup in it, it's not going in the basket."

Books, movies and news articles linking America's obesity epidemic to high-fructose corn syrup have made consumers increasingly wary of the sweetener. Some food manufacturers are responding by switching back to sugar in some products, including Heinz ketchup and Wheat Thins.

The change is most visible in the realm of highly sweetened, highly advertised beverages. From Pepsi Throwback and Heritage Dr Pepper to Gatorade and Snapple, sugar is making a comeback - if only in hype-seeking "limited edition" batches.

Many consumers cheer the move for reasons of taste. But some see drinks made with sugar as healthful, and that has some obesity experts worried.

"Many consumers think, 'If I consume soda or a candy bar, and it has regular sugar, it's healthy,' " said Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Public Health. "And that's the danger, because they're equally bad."

Equally bad? This from the man who helped get the whole high-fructose corn syrup rebellion rolling.

In a 2004 commentary in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Popkin and two co-authors noted that the sharp rise in high-fructose corn syrup consumption in the United States since 1970 mirrored the rise in the nation's obesity rate.

"When we wrote the article six or seven years ago, we speculated high-fructose corn syrup might be worse" than sugar, Popkin said. "It was picked up by the blog world, and it became folklore that high fructose was poison."

In the years since, research has shown that the body metabolizes high-fructose corn syrup differently from sugar. Some studies indicate that the syrup can have damaging effects on the kidney and liver. But strictly in terms of calories and, by extension, obesity, he said, the products are equally bad.

"People think [sugar] is better and it's not better," said Dr. Benjamin Caballero, professor of nutrition at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Fructose has 4 calories per gram. Sucrose has 4 calories per gram."

It's the super-sizing of sweetened drinks, not the sweetener in particular, that is probably to blame for super-sizing Americans, Caballero and other experts believe.

The average American consumes about 97 pounds of various sugars - mostly high-fructose corn syrup and refined cane and beet sugars - each year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That's up from about 85 pounds a year in 1970. A lot of that comes in the form of sweetened drinks. Liquids account for one in every four calories Americans consume, and the number of calories consumed each day has increased by 300 in the past 15 years, Caballero said.

Switching to sugar-sweetened sodas will do nothing to reverse that trend, nutritionists say. But it is helping the sugar industry snatch back some market share it's lost since the syrup's introduction in the 1960s.

"There are 100-plus products that advertise on their packaging they don't contain high-fructose corn syrup," said Andy Briscoe, president of the Sugar Association, a trade group representing beet and cane sugar growers in 18 states.

He maintained that scientific studies have found a link between high-fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity. He also said that sugar is a more natural product than the syrup, created in a highly complex process that involves changing molecular structures.

"Consumers are coming back to simple products, and when they look at the ingredients on the packaging, it [sugar] is one they recognize and can feel good about," he said. "It's all natural, it's only 15 calories [per teaspoon], it's been used safely for over 2,000 years and, oh, by the way, it's a sweetener you can pronounce."

He added: "We're not saying it's the new health food."

Makers of high-fructose corn syrup have struck back with a public relations campaign, including advertising and a Web site, SweetSurprise.com. The site prominently quotes a 2008 American Medical Association report: "Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose."

While scientific consensus seems to be in the high-fructose camp, books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and films such as "King Corn" have brought more consumers into sugar's corner.

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