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Could sugar shake off its bad boy image?

16-Mar-2009
Last updated on 19-Mar-2009 at 17:21 GMT2009-03-19T17:21:31Z

Could sugar shake off its bad boy image?

Sugar could be shedding its bad boy image to take a surprise spot on the public’s list of trusted ingredients, as manufacturers look to appeal to more savvy consumers.

High fructose corn syrup in several major-brand soft drinks is being replaced with old-fashioned sugar.

Last week, the vice president of marketing for Snapple told this website that the switch to sugar in its iced teas was all about “delivering great taste”. But he said there’s nothing wrong with the taste of HFCS – indeed, the company sees the two sweeteners as “about the same”.

Like Snapple, similar moves for newly released soft drinks include ‘retro versions’ of Pepsi and Mountain Dew, which feature 1970s-style packaging and 1970s-style formulation, sweetened with sugar instead of HFCS.

There could be nothing more to it than taste, of course, but given current consumer attitudes to HFCS, it seems possible that this is being used as a trial run for a wider move back to sugar.

HFCS and obesity

This makes sense on two levels: Firstly, HFCS suffers from a serious image problem. Whether justified or not, it has become the perennial scapegoat for America’s obesity problem.

Although the World Health Organization sees obesity as a global epidemic, the US still heads the list, with obesity affecting over a third of American adults. Suggested links between high fructose corn syrup and obesity stand on shaky scientific ground, but many US consumers are trying to avoid it all the same, even if it is simply because of rumors about an obesity connection.

For people who believe those rumors, sugar makes a comforting alternative, like going back to the good old days.

The problem is that however you look at it, sugary soft drinks are hardly a healthy choice. Let’s not forget that food and beverage manufacturers are still being urged to reduce the amount of sugar in their products (along with salt and saturated fat), or that sugar and HFCS have the same number of calories per gram.

Natural appeal

So secondly, manufacturers have cottoned on to sugar’s appeal as a natural sweetener.

In addition to its retro drinks, PepsiCo has also released an ‘all-natural’ Pepsi version sweetened with sugar, marketed as Pepsi Natural in the US and Pepsi Raw in the UK.

‘Natural’ is currently the top claim on new product labels – manufacturers obviously think this is an attractive thing – but in itself this doesn’t necessarily explain a shift from HFCS.

Depending on its manufacturing method, HFCS can be produced in way that designates it as a natural sweetener, highlighted recently in a controversial advertising campaign.

But research has shown that consumers are becoming increasingly skeptical of natural claims, even as the quest for natural foods and beverages has grown on the back of an overarching consumer trend towards healthier nutrition.

People think they know where they stand with sugar. Manufacturers are beginning to realize this.

Whether it deserves a modicum of a halo or not, sugar seems to be getting a marketing makeover that could make it the ultimate comeback kid.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh’s Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas ‘at’ decisionnews.com.

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