December 7

Sugar: the new health food

4  comments

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You may have read the article in the Wall Street Journal or in online sources about Seattle-based Jones Soda Company’s decision to start making their soft drinks using sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) starting in January.
According to the CEO, the move is being made for health reasons. Reports the WSJ:

Sweetening its sodas with cane sugar instead of HFCS “truly differentiates Jones and provides the consumer with a healthier alternative,” Peter van Stolk, the company’s president and chief executive, said in announcing the switch. Unlike HFCS, he said, cane sugar is a “natural ingredient” with a “positive perception in the consumer’s mind.”

I’m not so sure that sugar is associated with a “positive perception” in the minds of most people. Nor do I buy into the idea that sugar is natural and HCFS isn’t. Sugar is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets, unquestionably ‘natural’ substances; HFCS is extracted from corn, which is, at least the last time I checked, also a ‘natural’ substance.
All bloviating to the contrary, I suspect the real reason that the folks at Jones Soda Co. decided to make the change was a marketing one. They simply believe that with all the attacks on HFCS in the media they will sell more flavored sugar water if they sweeten with sugar instead of HFCS.
The sugar will alter the taste of the beverage, but whether or not this will appeal to customers used to the HFCS taste remains to be seen. Soft drinks in other parts of the world are sweetened with sugar instead of HFCS and taste distinctly different. I posted a while back on how Mexican immigrants to this country spend more to get Coca Cola that has been bottled in Mexico and imported because they much prefer the taste.
What will happen to the Jones Soda Company is a larger hickey on their profit and loss statement for ingredients. Sugar, compared to HFCS, is not cheap. The primary reason that US bottlers switched to HFCS is that it is so much less expensive because it isn’t regulated in the way sugar is. There are federally mandated price supports for sugar, but not for HFCS, so while food manufacturers in other parts of the world can get sugar inexpensively, those in the US can’t. They use HFCS.
Who supports the price supports on sugar? The sugar lobby, you say. Yes, but they’re not the only ones. How about Archer Daniels Midland? They are the biggest beneficiary. I’m going to poach from my earlier post and include the John Stossel interview with the head of ADM in this one as well:

When public interest groups compile lists of corporate welfare recipients, a company named Archer Daniels Midland is usually at the top of the list. You may never have heard of ADM, because it’s name rarely appears on consumer products, but it’s huge. It’s products are in most processed foods.
ADM collects welfare because of two cleverly designed special deals. The first is the government’s mandated minimum price for sugar. Because of the price supports, if the Coca-Cola Company or Pepsi wants to buy sugar for its soda, it has to pay 22 cents a pound – more than twice the world price. So Coke (and most everyone else) buys corn sweetener instead. Guess who makes corn sweetener? ADM, of course. Now guess who finances the groups that lobby to keep sugar prices high?
Why does ADM get these special deals? Bribery. Okay, it’s not bribery – that would be illegal. ADM just makes “contributions.” Through his business and family, former ADM chairman Dwayne Andreas gave millions in campaign funds to both Mondale and Reagan, Dukakis and Bush, Dole and Clinton. President Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods, says Andreas himself brought $100,000 in cash to the White House. He even paid the tuition for Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s son. Republicans, Democrats, it doesnt matter. ADM just gives.
It also flies people around on its corporate jets. When we contacted Andreas to ask for an interview, he arranged to fly us to ADM’s Decatur, Illinois, headquarters in one of ADM’s jets. I’ve seen private jets before, but ADM’s was a step above. A flight attendant served us excellent food on gold-plated china. The camera crew and I loved it. Bet the politicians like it, too.
A limo took us to Dwayne Andreas’s office. Once the cameras were rolling, I brought our the questions about “corporate welfare.” I foolishly thought I could get him to admit he was a rich guy milking the system. I thought he’d at least act embarrassed about it. Fuggeddaboutit. He was unfazed.
John Stossel: Mother Jones [magazine] pictured you as a pig. You’re a pig feeding at the welfare trough.
Dwayne Andreas: Why should I care?
John Stossel: It doesn’t bother you?
Dwayne Andreas: Not a bit.

In terms of our national obesity epidemic it probably doesn’t much matter whether sodas made by Jones are sweetened with sugar of HFCS because these sodas are sold at the upper end of the price range, are bottled in one size, and don’t have particularly wide distribution. Since the amount of fructose in the type of HFCS used to make soft drinks is only slightly greater than that in sugar (55% verses 50%), I don’t think the couple of grams or so of fructose will make a big difference to the metabolic system of the average consumer of Jones’ sodas.
Where it would make a difference, however, is in the metabolic systems of those consuming SuperSized portions of soft drinks from bottomless, free refill cups at all the fast food outlets. The extra 5 percent of fructose in these drinks would add up to a substantial amount. Unfortunately, I don’t see the fast food places or Coke or Pepsi making the change because the hit on their bottom lines would be too great.
In fact, the people at both Coke and Pepsi have gotten their noses out of joint that the upstart Jones Soda Co. has had the temerity to switch to sugar and tout it as a health benefit. From the WSJ:

Coca Cola Co. and PepsiCo have used HFCS widely in their sodas in the U.S. for more than 20 years and vigorously defend its safety. “To say cane sugar is healthier than HFCS just isn’t true. Marketing a myth for a competitive advantage is irresponsible and short-sighted,” says Dave DeCecco, a Pepsi spokesman.

So Coke and Pepsi have used HFCS in their sodas for more than 20 years (since 1980 to be exact) and vigorously defend its safety. Isn’t that just about how long the obesity epidemic has been going?


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  1. The Jones Soda Company also makes several sugar free versions, made with Splenda. They are really good, I especially like the Green Apple when I am fasting.
    Hi Cathy–
    I, too, have had the sugar-free versions on occasion, and I like them a lot.
    Best–
    MRE

  2. Interesting piece. I was under the impression that fructose consumed in food/beverages is less likely to cause BG spikes, but in sufficient quantities is a prominent factor in the condition known as ‘fatty liver’.
    Hi Steve–
    You’re right.  Fructose does cause less of a blood glucose spike because it is diverted to fat production in the liver.  Interestingly, a little fructose, such as the amount found in a serving of fruit, actually increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin.  But the amounts typically consumed in the American diet convert to fat in the liver, and over enough time actually deposit there leading to a condition known as NAFLD, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
    Best–
    MRE

  3. Yeah, the problem with HFCS isn’t what’s found in the soft drinks, because even if you avoid sodas alltogether, they’re still found in practically every processed food bought in the supermarket or fast food. Read the label of anything that comes in a cardboard box and it will have HFCS. Every bun, processed cheese slice, processed meat patty, burger sauce, salad dressing, ketchup, mustard, every mass produced item for the fast food industry has some form of HFCS.
    The jump in obesity comes from using products that the public did not realize were all substituting HFCS for cane sugar and flavoring. There was never a general announcement since most companies did this without consulting each other, but the results have been the same as if the public had volunteered for a massive experiment.
    IF I don’t cook what I’m eating, I make sure I can have a piece of rare meat without anything on it when I go out with friends.
    Dr Mike, it would be helpful if on some post, you addressed the problem of fatty liver and how long it would take someone to alleviate the problem on low or zero carb.
    Hi LC–
    Yeah, HFCS has wormed its way into everything.  And it’s all because of our government.  Our government put price supports on cane and beet sugar causing their price domestically to be out of whack with the world price of sugar.  Good ol’ American ingenuity tackled the problem and created HFCS in the 1970s.  Once created it could be sold cheaply and started replacing sugar in soft drinks and other sugar-laden products to keep the cost down.  Then food manufacturers discovered that HFCS has many virtues in the food processing biz that real sugar didn’t have.  It mixes easier, it doesn’t crystallize, it jas better mouthfeel, it adds moisture–just to name a few (No health virtues, needless to say).  In short order, due to these properties, HFCS has found its way into almost all processed foods.
    Had our leaders (whom we elected and paid) shunned the money from Big Sugar and let the price fluctuate with world supply, it’s doubtful that anyone would have invested in developing a substitute.  If we had no HFCS, no one would know how well it lends itself to food processing, and, well, you can fill in the blanks.
    I plan a post soon on the hidden epidemic of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  Bad stuff.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  4. I come from thin parents and grandparents but around the age of 9 (1978) I gained about 20 pounds in six months. My drink of choice was chocolate milk (nice insulin surge). Good thing I never developed a real taste for soda.
    I remained somewhere between 25 to 40 pounds overweight until the age of 32 I went on the Atkins diet, and I can say now I have kept it off (37) and am at 18 % bodyfat (female).
    As far as speculation goes, they put fructose in baby formula and what would be the final result on that? Most of the experiments about metabolic imprinting deals with low birth weight infants, but there is one study I read that dealt with feeding rats high carb milk at least compared with to rat milk. If I remember correctly, the rats developed high insulin levels in the first 24 hrs and later developed obesity as adult rats. From those rats they raised a second generation which was treated identically to the controls (raised on rat milk) but that second generation became obese. Something about phenotype expression.
    Yeah, they are rats but would this occur in humans. We are on the second and third generation of formula fed children, i.e. are you much more likely to have high insulin levels if you been formula fed a couple of generations? Granted the first formula generation was raised on evaporated milk. This would be hard to figure out, right? How much would obesity be a result of imprinting as an infant or subsequent lifestyle?
    Hi Mmmm–
    I suspect that fetal imprinting makes a huge impact on health for a couple of generations.  It will be interesting to see how our generations fare in the longevity sweepstakes.
    Best–
    MRE

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