By Alicia Kelso
In what appears to be a bit of a comeback, sugar has begun making its way once again onto ingredient labels. Products such as Heinz Ketchup, Kraft Salad Dressings and Gatorade have switched from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar, and Pepsi has introduced limited-time "throwback" brands — also with sugar.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sweetener Market Data from February shows total sugar deliveries for human consumption have increased from 7,723 (1,000 short tons, refined) in 1989 to 9,276 in 2009.
The shift has even trickled into the restaurant industry. Starbucks and Jamba Juice have reformulated their menus to replace HFCS with sugar, according to Maria Caranfa, an analyst at foodservice research company Mintel International Group. Jason's Deli did the same except for its soft drinks, and is convincing vendors — beginning with Lance Crackers — to follow suit.
Among quick-service brands, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen just launched tea with a nod to cane sugar — "Cane Sweeeet Iced Tea" — and Taco Bell touts its use of sugar in its Fruitista drink.
But Popeyes says the move is more about offering sweet and unsweet tea than about sugar vs. HCFS.
"Popeyes is based on bold flavors, and this tea is just one more example of serving customers robust flavors they can’t find anywhere else," said Alicia Thompson, Popeyes spokeswoman. "Specialty iced tea, like Southern sweet tea, is a leading QSR beverage trend of the last couple of years."
Taco Bell said in a statement that the Frutista Freeze uses sugar as part of its "natural" profile: "Frutista Freeze is made with natural ingredients and is topped with real strawberries. It is made with natural flavors and sucrose, as opposed to other frozen beverages that are made with artificial flavors and high fructose corn syrup."
Trend or fad?
Caranfa said Mintel's research finds consumer's buying habits as it relates to sugar are changing. For example, 31 percent of consumers now consider no-HFCS on the label before purchasing juice.
"Going back and forth between whether or not sugar or HFCS is bad for you, the more natural ingredient is going to win," Caranfa said. "Consumers know sugar is empty calories, and if they're going to eat an empty calorie, they may as well do it with something natural."
Although there aren't definitive statistics of sugar's re-introduction onto menus, these examples may indicate a fledgling trend.
"Consumers are driving this trend, and restaurants' adding natural products are taking their consumers seriously and building more trust in their brand," Caranfa said. "I believe in the next two years, we'll see more companies adding sugar in lieu of HFCS in their products as consumers look to eat more natural."
A factor in sugar's rebound may be a Princeton study released earlier this year concluding a weight gain in lab rats with HFCS access vs. those with sugar access, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. The differences behind these results have yet to be determined, however, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest claims HFCS is no more harmful nutritionally than sugar.
Still, those in the sugar industry are excited about the findings.
"We've known for a long time that sugar is the gold standard in sweeteners," said Mollie O'Dell, communications director at The Sugar Association Inc. "There is a real future for sugar as consumers become more sophisticated and want to know what they're putting into their bodies. They can look at a label and recognize sugar and its natural properties."
Pros and cons
There has been some debate surrounding the natural properties of HFCS even after The Food and Drug Administration noted in 2008 it would "not object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS."
"Sugar and HFCS are nutritionally the same," said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association. "The American Medical Association has even noted there is no difference. This switcheroo, replacing HFCS with sugar at a higher price, is misleading, and consumers shouldn't fall for it."
Although sugar costs more than HFCS or other artificial sweeteners, Caranfa says this is a non-issue.
"It's worth it because restaurants are investing in their customers," Caranfa said. "If you can't afford to eat somewhere other than a QSR, why should you only have unhealthy items as choices? For QSRs, it will help their image among consumers."
Phillip Hayes, spokesperson for the American Sugar Alliance, says the cost difference between sugar and other sweeteners is too minimal to matter.
"Sugar prices have basically remained flat for three decades and have not adjusted for inflation. The price of sugar is a very small fraction of the product," he said.
"High-fructose corn syrup is highly economical compared to sugar," she said. "I'd be surprised if any QSR embarked upon a campaign to entirely replace HFCS with sugar, especially in tight economic times when grabbing a hold of consumers' limited dollars is key."
Erickson admits an image problem for HFCS stems from its name. "It's a misnomer. It is not high in fructose. We are working to correct the record on this," she said.
HFCS still a player
Sugar's rise doesn't necessarily mean HFCS' fall, industry experts say.
"They have successfully coexisted for more than 30 years and will continue to do so," Hayes said. Popular QSR items — from buns to dressing and desserts to soft drinks — still contain HFCS. And as USDA statistics show a steady increase in sugar deliveries, the same is true of HFCS. Measured in 1,000 short tons, dry weight, HFCS deliveries have increased from 6,727 in 1992 to 8,026 in 2009.
"We don't see a trend. QSRs provide value at an affordable price. That's their niche. Their value comes from — and is enhanced by — products that contain HFCS," Erickson said. "When I walk into a QSR, I'm not thinking if something is organic, I just want my kids to eat and have fun."
Flickr photo by Uwe Hermann