Sunday, April 18, 2010

It’s Hard to Sell a Product With Fructose in the Name

Snapple is a soft drink with an image problem. It’s promoted with the trademark “Made from the Best Stuff on Earth,” yet the dominant ingredient that has gone into Snapple products over the years is an artificial sugar, which is allowed to be called high fructose corn syrup and identified as a natural food ingredient only as the result of energetic industry lobbying and the up-is-down world of Washington bureaucracy.

Not everyone understands how artificial high fructose corn syrup is, or how misleading its name is, but people are coming to understand how damaging fructose is. Fructose is metabolized like ethanol and causes liver toxicity in essentially the same way — meaning, if you’re drinking fructose, it is probably important to limit yourself to one drink per hour, the same rule of thumb that applies to alcoholic beverages. Some researchers now say flatly that fructose is the cause of metabolic syndrome, a progressive breakdown in metabolism that could be the main cause of the 20th-century increases in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a laundry list of dread diseases. According to theories of metabolism, high fructose corn syrup ought to be equivalent to white sugar, but studies of actual consumption of food, including a recent study at Princeton University, have found significant weight gain from eating high fructose corn syrup, in comparison to sugar. Scientists can only guess why. One theory is that white sugar is less completely digested because of its ability to form crystals. Even if the mechanism hasn’t been identified, though, you can’t ignore the science, which says that high fructose corn syrup causes the same kind of weight gain that seems to be associated with all other artificial sweeteners.

“The Best Stuff on Earth”? This glaring contradiction has finally led Snapple to stop taking deliveries of high fructose corn syrup, replacing it with white sugar. By summer, you won’t be able to find a bottle of Snapple that still contains the artificial sugar that the company has relied on for most of its history.

It’s not just Snapple. Similar moves are underway at Gatorade, and Whole Foods Market made the move almost a decade ago. The move away from high fructose corn syrup is now seen as an inevitable trend across the soft drink industry.

I think the advertising campaign by the Corn Refiners Association (that name alone tells you how artificial high fructose corn syrup is) that uses cherry-picked science to try to support high fructose corn syrup has backfired. After I first wrote about the problems with high fructose corn syrup last year, I was barraged with messages seeking to reassure me that high fructose corn syrup no longer contains mercury. I have a hard time imagining who would be reassured by those advertisements. People who are up on science would likely assume that the reason the high fructose corn syrup industry is ignoring the latest scientific research is because the research is unfavorable to its product. To those who don’t follow science, the message would surely reek of scandal and cover-up, and the prominent mention of high fructose corn syrup and mercury together would be hard to forget. But the main problem with that advertising is that it doesn’t mention the main issue, which is not mercury, but fructose. The level of mercury found in food products made from high fructose corn syrup is of concern only to people who have a special sensitivity to mercury, perhaps because they already have a high mercury load from eating a lot of fish — but everyone, we realize now, needs to be aware of fructose, the same way you need to know when you are drinking alcohol. In that context, the mercury issue looks like a red herring that the high fructose corn syrup industry is exploiting to distract the public from the real issue of fructose.

In the end, it’s a losing proposition. “High fructose corn syrup” may be a dishonest name, but at least it is up front about the fructose. You can’t mention high fructose corn syrup without saying the word fructose. The more the high fructose corn syrup industry talks about its product, the more people are going to be reminded of the problem of fructose. Even using the word “sweet” now can remind many people of that issue, after so many advertising messages that put “sweet” and “high fructose corn syrup” together.

Here’s my suggestion for the “corn refiners.” Get rid of the genetically modified corn and the chemical pesticides, get rid of the mercury, the acids, the enzymes, and most of the equipment in the chemical factories, and figure out how to make organic corn syrup using traditional cooking techniques such as steam and filtering. Yes, natural corn syrup is 10 percent less sweet than high fructose corn syrup, but if made correctly, it is 100 percent more natural, and in times like these, that could be a selling point.