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Sweetener Wars: Real Difference or Just Corporate Sweet Talk?

RP Siegel | Monday July 12th, 2010 | 4 Comments

Yet another confirmation of the fact that we do indeed live in the Land of the Odd came this week with the announcement that Dr. Pepper, in response to perceived consumer demand and in celebration of its 125th anniversary, is now offering a throwback version of its popular soft drink, harking back to those wholesome good old days when a soft drink was little more than artificially flavored carbonated water that was loaded with sugar. This is following similar moves by Mountain Dew and Pepsi. It wasn’t that long ago when we were told that sugar was something we were supposed to avoid ingesting large quantities of, lest we invite the ravages of obesity and/or type II diabetes, both of which are on the rise in this country.

But sugar appears to be making a bit of a comeback as the self-proclaimed winner in the lesser of two evils competition with its new-kid-on-the–block archrival high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

So what is the deal here? According to Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat, “The public now puts HFCS in the same category as trans fats: poison (it’s not; it’s just sugars). Biochemically, it is about the same as table sugar (both have about the same amount of fructose and calories), but it is in everything and Americans eat a lot of it — nearly 60 pounds per capita in 2006.” The American Medical Association agrees that there is no difference between the two, although according to a recently published Princeton study, rats fed a diet rich in HFCS accumulated more belly fat and had higher levels of circulating triglycerides than their sugar-fed peers.

So, it appears that like a lot of other scientific questions upon which the allocation of billions of dollars of consumer spending depends, like tobacco or global warming, the public is likely to be subjected to a continual tennis match of claims and confusing counter-claims from scientific studies that will mostly be funded by one side or the other in this debate. Because as long as the issue is never finally settled, people will continue to spend on whichever option they prefer.

But maybe the real issue is not about health at all. Maybe the American people are starting to become aware of the government subsidized corporate takeover of our food system that was so well documented in the film Food Inc. Corn, it turns out, is the raw material, behind some 70% of the food that the typical American eats, much of it in the form of HFCS. This highly skewed arrangement produces lots of empty calories at lower prices, contributing to a rash of health problems particularly among low-income families who can afford little else, all due to a monumental manipulation of our food supply and the commodities market by a collaboration of industry executives, highly paid lobbyists and remarkably cooperative congressional representatives and other government officials who were often hand picked as a reward for their support of one candidate or another.

And in case you were wondering, this factory farm system is anything but sustainable. By some measures, a typical American meal travels some 1500 miles by the time it reaches your dinner table.

There seems to be a pattern here. Perhaps people are getting a bit fed up with a world that is being re-created by corporations in their own image filled with foods created in test tubes to improve profit margins and lifestyles designed to keep us dependent on expensive fossil fuels. More and more people are opting out of the mass market consumption machine, standing up and making choices that are best for themselves, their communities, and the planet by choosing to buy thoughtful, healthy, sustainable products that are locally produced.

Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup in my soda? I’ll just have water, thanks.

RP Siegel is co-author of the sustainability thriller Vapor Trails.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  1. July 12, 2010 at 15:39 pm PDT | Permanent4 writes:

    Who cares whether or not sugar and HFCS are similar or not? The bottom line is that sugar makes soft drinks TASTE BETTER. It probably makes a lot of other products taste better, too, compared to corn syrup. The only reason Coke, Pepsi and others use corn syrup is because it’s cheaper. Same reason they use plastic bottles. Plastic is cheaper than glass, and they never have to wash a bottle. Just let the neighborhood recycling plants take care of it.

    HFCS in soft drinks is simply corporate thinking hard at work. Never mind the quality of the product or the cost to the environment. What makes them the most money? I don’t buy soda very often, but when I do, it’s in glass bottles and made with real sugar. Coke and Pepsi are garbage compared to some of the good small company soft drinks out there.

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  2. July 12, 2010 at 15:39 pm PDT | Permanent4 writes:

    Who cares whether or not sugar and HFCS are similar or not? The bottom line is that sugar makes soft drinks TASTE BETTER. It probably makes a lot of other products taste better, too, compared to corn syrup. The only reason Coke, Pepsi and others use corn syrup is because it’s cheaper. Same reason they use plastic bottles. Plastic is cheaper than glass, and they never have to wash a bottle. Just let the neighborhood recycling plants take care of it.

    HFCS in soft drinks is simply corporate thinking hard at work. Never mind the quality of the product or the cost to the environment. What makes them the most money? I don’t buy soda very often, but when I do, it’s in glass bottles and made with real sugar. Coke and Pepsi are garbage compared to some of the good small company soft drinks out there.

    Reply Or REGISTER HERE if you are new.

  3. July 12, 2010 at 20:16 pm PDT | cornrefiner writes:

    Your readers should understand what others have to say about the Princeton study before accepting the results.

    “So, I’m skeptical. I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats. I’m afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one. So does HFCS make rats fat? Sure if you feed them too many calories altogether. Sucrose will do that too.” Marion Nestle, Ph.D., Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University http://cli.gs/Jrsys

    “The researchers concluded ‘over-consumption of HFCS could very well be a major factor in the ‘obesity epidemic,’ which correlates with the upsurge in the use of HFCS.’ It might be. But to my mind, these experiments hardly prove it.” Karen Kaplan, Science Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times http://bit.ly/buSWxb

    “This study is poorly designed and poorly controlled and does not prove or even suggest that HFCS is more likely to lead to obesity than sucrose [table sugar].” Karen Teff, Ph.D., Associate Director, Institute for Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine http://bit.ly/bkD52b

    According to the American Dietetic Association, “high fructose corn syrup…is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.”

    You can also learn more about high fructose corn syrup at http://www.SweetSurprise.com.

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

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  4. July 13, 2010 at 1:18 am PDT | nickaster writes:

    If it were not so insidious, I'd find it hilarious – now Mountain Dew is “healthy” because it's pure sugar and not HFCS. Just classic. The problem is that we eat way, way too much of both, and it's been added to things people are not even aware of, like bread. Seems if you sweeten things up they sell better.

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  1. July 13, 10 at 5:14 am PDT | Cosmetology Center writes:

    [...] Sweetener Wars: Real Difference or Just Corporate Sweet Talk … [...]

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