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Sugar and corn syrup battle for tastebuds

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Snapple beverages
Bottles of Snapple iced tea and juice drinks at a supermarket in California. Snapple drinks are in the midst of a major marketing campaign to promote the use of sugar. Pepsi is using sugar in it's throwback Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Sugar took a back seat to corn sweetener starting in the 1970s.  Corn sweetener was cheaper and increased the shelf life of processed food. 

By the 1990s, high fructose corn sweetener was in everything from bread to soft drinks -- especially soft drinks. That's where up to 80 percent of high fructose corn sweetener is consumed. 

After years of marketing battles, sugar is winning and corn sweetener is fighting an image of being unhealthy.

In response, some beverage makers are switching back to sugar and touting it as a natural ingredient. 

Snapple drinks are in the midst of a major marketing campaign to promote the use of sugar.  Pepsi is using sugar in its "Throwback" Pepsi and Mountain Dew.

"Everything is competitive, we all compete for share of stomach if you will," said American Crystal Sugar President David Berg.  "For some time most of the beverages in the country were sweetened with corn sweeteners and at this time some of the beverage manufacturers decided they want to take some of that share of stomach and put it back into sugar. We obviously feel good about that." 

Berg admits after watching sugar lose market share to corn sweetener, he smiles when he sees ads that now tout the use of sugar. 

Consumption of sweeteners
This graphic shows how the consumption of refined sugar declined while that of corn sweetener increased starting in the mid-1960s.
Graphic courtesy of the USDA

However, Berg didn't want to talk about many of the other issues at play now, such as how the change might affect the competitive world sugar market. 

The switch isn't likely to make sugar beet growers rich. Farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota could see their price for sugar could go up a few cents a pound, but sugar producers in countries like Brazil and Thailand might see more financial benefit. 

World sugar prices are lower than U.S. prices, so as demand for sugar grows, the U.S. will allow more sugar imports, driving up world prices.  

Economists say the corn sweetener industry could suffer if demand falls, but farmers shouldn't see much effect because there's still strong demand for corn to make ethanol. 

However, the corn sweetener industry is fighting back with an ad campaign of its own, pointing out that high fructose corn sweetener is also a natural ingredient. 

"Corn growers certainly, as well as corn refiners, are very concerned about the mischaracterization of high fructose corn syrup that are being made in the public domain," said Corn Refiners Association President Audrae Erickson. "Consumers are being misled into thinking it's somehow different from sugar when nutritionally they are both the same." 

Erickson won't talk about the financial impact on the corn sweetener industry as manufacturers reduce their demand.  But she contends corn sweetener is the victim of bad press. 

Some studies have pointed to soft drinks and corn sweetener as a contributor to obesity, but others point to health risks from fructose, which is found in both corn sweetener and sugar. 

One study found fructose raises the level of triglycerides in the blood, contributing to heart disease, another found it metabolized differently, increasing the risk of diabetes. 

The corn sweetener industry contends those studies are flawed because they only studied fructose, one component of corn sweetener. 

Allen Levine, Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota, says it's true many of the studies that found adverse health effects from fructose were based on high doses of pure fructose. 

"So it got a bad name, the word fructose," he said. "Now you have high fructose corn sweeteners and it says high fructose.  So immediately, the public is going to assume this is bad because fructose may not be so great for you. But it's really close to the same chemical composition as table sugar, sucrose. So it's really misinformation." 

Levine says from a nutritional standpoint, sugar has about the same calories as corn sweetener.  As a result, he says consumers will still need to limit consumption to avoid adverse health effects. 

Levine says it's not clear yet how much of the food and beverage industry will switch from corn sweetener to sugar. He says sugar is still more expensive, but the food industry will respond to consumer demand. 

Levine would like to see more research directly comparing the two sweeteners.  He says that's the only way to know which sweetener has the fewest health risks.