When a company as big as Starbucks backs away from high-fructose corn syrup, you know the sweetener's in trouble.
It's not a new trend; use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been dropping steadily for the past six years, and companies like PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple have begun touting new sugar-based products as "natural" alternatives.
The drop has the high-fructose corn syrup industry basically freaking out, spending millions of dollars to convince consumers that HFCS is no less healthy for you than sugar. Which is kind of like arguing that vodka is no worse for you than gin: it's true, but that doesn't mean either one is good for us.
"The irony is that white table sugar -- formerly a leading target of 'eat less' messages -- suddenly has a health aura," says nutrition expert and food industry critic Marion Nestle. "Marketers have wasted no time moving in to use that aura to sell the same old products."
That seems to be the direction Starbucks is going. It's pushing its new HFCS-free baked goods as part of its "Real Food. Simply Delicious" campaign -- drawing criticism from groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom. "An apple fritter is an apple fritter, not health food," the group said in a statement. "And no matter what Starbucks' marketing whiz kids say, it will still have 420 calories and 20 grams of fat.
There's some evidence that HFCS might be worse for us than sugar because our bodies metabolize it differently, but a majority of nutrition groups seem to agree that the problem is quantity, regardless of which sweetener you're using.
But HFCS has a marketing problem built right into its name. Studies show that fructose is bad for us in all sorts of ways, which, logically, would lead consumers to believe they should avoid anything with "high-fructose" in the title. And that's true, but sugar is no better -- it's 50 percent fructose as well.
As I've said before, however, facts rarely have much impact on public perception, and public perception is the best thing for companies to go off of if they want to make a profit. Still, a full industry switch to sugar is unlikely -- price continues to give HFCS the advantage.
Price is pretty much the reason HFCS is in every conceivable type of food product in the first place, from candy to bread. Corn and sugar are two of our least laissez-faire products -- corn is heavily subsidized, while sugar has strict import quotas. This has kept sugar prices artificially high while making corn products ridiculously cheap.
The same thing seems to be starting south of the border -- apparently use of high-fructose corn syrup is rising in Mexico, as the supply of cane sugar there becomes increasingly tight. Which could get really confusing -- what will we call "Mexican Coke"?
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