Dr Pepper has announced it will switch from high fructose corn syrup to processed beet sugar in honor of its 125th anniversary. Earlier this year, Hunt’s removed high fructose corn syrup from its ketchup. And Starbucks claims to have removed it from its baked goods last year.
As food trends go, this is more like one that ought to be called out by the Federal Trade Commission.
All these brands have jumped on the latest food fad. They’re implying that sugar changes will help consumers become healthier.
How? Let’s take a crash course on sweeteners.
There are many kinds of sugar, but the two most common sugars in our diet are glucose and fructose, two simple sugars. Simple sugars can sweeten foods by themselves. They also can serve as building blocks for other, more complex sugars — like high fructose corn sugar and table sugar. In fact, both sugars are made up of a roughly 50-50 mix of those two simple sugars, glucose and fructose.
So what’s the actual difference between them? Marketing.
Table sugar is made from beets or cane, and high fructose corn syrup is made from corn. It’s that simple, even if the marketing departments act like switching from one to the other is a big deal. Harvard University medical professor David Ludwig calls the switch “100 percent marketing and zero percent science.”
There’s no difference in how our bodies handle sugars from beet, cane and corn. This is a view held by nutritionists and the American Medical Association. And the American Dietetic Association, which represents 70,000 food and nutrition experts, says that high fructose corn syrup “is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose [table sugar].”
A common myth is that high fructose corn syrup somehow fattens us up. Yet one of the original scientists behind that theory, University of North Carolina professor Barry Popkin, fully admitted last year that “we were wrong in our speculations.”
High fructose corn syrup is just a sugar from corn that’s a more flexible replacement for processed sugar. High fructose corn syrup has the same number of calories — but as an added advantage it also keeps baked goods fresh longer and retains moisture in cereals and granola bars.
As you might expect, companies that make processed sugar have tried to extend the shelf life of this misinformation campaign by labeling their products “all natural” or “made with real sugar,” in contrast to the poorly named high fructose corn syrup. But the process for making table sugar from sugar cane or beets is similar to that for making high fructose corn syrup. That’s why table sugar is processed with other chemicals. Sugar cubes don’t “naturally” grow on trees.
The irony is that companies know swapping sweeteners won’t change the nutritional content one bit. Hunt’s has practically admitted as much, saying the sweetener swap was in “response to consumer demand.”
Therein lies the problem. The corn-based sweetener has been demonized by a small cadre of food activists, and some consumers have bought into this lie.
What to do? Enjoy food. Eat the sugar you want (in moderation). But don’t gulp down any marketing myths or pseudoscience.