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Originally published Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:44 PM

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Sugar pushes high fructose corn syrup off some food product labels

Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are still tussling over their spot on ingredient lists of food products. In some cases sugar is replacing corn syrup.

Chicago Tribune

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The bright red label on a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail boasts that it contains no high fructose corn syrup. Its sweet replacement: sugar.

Other juice makers also have replaced the sweetener with cane or beet sugar, as have such big-name products as Log Cabin syrup, some Kraft Foods dressings and certain Pepsi products. Starbucks has undertaken a switch from high fructose corn syrup to sugar in its bakery goods.

The turnabout is another step in the ongoing demonization of high fructose corn syrup, a potent symbol of processed food's many evils. Since use of the sweetener exploded in the 1980s, it has been derided as unnatural and lacking any meaningful nutritional value, often mentioned in the same breath as such food villains as trans fats and artificial dyes.

Recently First Lady Michelle Obama added to the criticism by saying she will not serve food made with high fructose corn syrup to her two young daughters.

The beneficiary of this demonization, however, has been sugar — which some consumers have come to view almost as a health food. But most scientists and nutritionists agree sugar is no better than high fructose corn syrup for a healthy diet.

Many consumers see sugar as more natural, since making high fructose corn syrup involves using enzymes in a complex series of chemical reactions. Environmentalists and others are concerned that depending on corn for sweeteners depletes the soil quality on land where it is farmed. Researchers have reported detecting traces of mercury in a small sampling of high fructose corn syrup, though they cautioned that the study was limited.

And some consumers simply say foods made with sugar taste better.

All of those issues have come to outweigh high fructose corn syrup's benefits — it helps keep foods moist, extends the shelf life of products and is cheaper to produce than cane or beet sugar. Consequently, it has become a popular ingredient in processed products in nearly every aisle of the supermarket.

The fact is high fructose corn syrup and sugar both contribute to increased risks of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses, according to the American Medical Association and numerous scientists and nutritionists. Although some studies have suggested the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup more slowly than it does sugar, experts say the bottom line for consumers is they should avoid both except in small amounts.

Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard University's School of Public Health and author of "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy," called the switches from high fructose corn syrup a "marketing distraction."

Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. Chief Operating Officer Ken Romanzi did not disagree. Even though there is no proof that high fructose corn syrup is more harmful than sugar, Romanzi said the maker of juices and other products "didn't want any negative implication that there was something bad for people in our Ocean Spray products."

The company decided two years ago to switch; the move was completed last fall.

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"The problem," Romanzi said, "is that perception is reality in the minds of consumers."

Similarly, Pinnacle Foods Group said it was responding to the concerns of consumers when it replaced high fructose corn syrup with sugar in its Log Cabin brand of syrup in April. Andy Reichgut, vice president of marketing for Pinnacle, said consumers prefer "the idea of products that were made with natural sugar. ... They believe that it delivers a cleaner and sweeter taste."

Manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup say the switch to sugar is the endgame in the long campaign against their sweetener, one largely based on unproven scientific assertions.

"Consumers are being misled into thinking that there's something different about this corn sweetener than any other sweetener, when in fact they're essentially the same," said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, a trade group that represents makers of high fructose corn syrup and others.

The group, frustrated with continuing attacks on high fructose corn syrup, launched a media and consumer campaign last summer to "change the conversation" about the product.

"This is not for science. This is not for consumer health," Erickson said of the food manufacturers' switch to sugar. "It is clearly about quarterly earnings in a tight economic environment."

Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a not-for-profit health advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said suggestions that high fructose corn syrup is more harmful nutritionally than sugar is "one of those urban myths that sounds right, but is basically wrong," according to its Web site.

But the group takes issue with claims by the Corn Refiners Association that high fructose corn syrup is natural. While corn is natural, the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, high fructose corn syrup "does not occur in nature" and, because it is heavily processed, "should be considered an artificial ingredient."

The Food and Drug Administration does not define the term "natural," a word that manufacturers have found useful in attracting health-conscious consumers. But the agency has said, in response to an industry-related inquiry, that high fructose corn syrup is natural when produced through a particular process, an FDA spokesman said.

Consumers have long struggled with the sweetener question as they try to balance good health with good taste.

Ann Titus, an associate creative director at a Chicago advertising firm, said she has turned away from high fructose corn syrup as she has tried to maintain a healthy diet, and one she believes is more natural. She even gave up one of her favorite drinks — Snapple raspberry tea — because it contained the sweetener.

"When I saw it was a main ingredient of raspberry Snapple, I stopped cold. Which was unfortunate, because I really loved raspberry Snapple," said Titus.

As it happens, Snapple has joined the manufacturers that have replaced high fructose corn syrup with sugar, switching the ingredients in many of its drinks earlier this year. Now, its raspberry tea is made with sugar.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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