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Sugar-sweetened soft drinks: The taste may differ, but don't kid yourself they're healthier

January 5, 2010 |  7:19 pm

Given all the panic in the streets about high-fructose corn syrup, it's no surprise that beverage companies are making hay out of vintage formulations that use sugar from cane or beets in their beverages instead of the syrup. Many fans say the beverages taste better with sucrose -- hence the following enjoyed by Mexican Coke.

It is also not surprising that the Sugar Assn. is thrilled by this development. In an exuberant press release today it "applauded Pepsi-Cola" for reintroducing Pepsi Throwback (For a limited time only! Hurry! Hurry!) and noted that "Pepsi Throwback gives shoppers another opportunity to chose natural sweeteners instead of manufactured ones.”

Certainly, cane/beet sugar -- once reviled -- has had a rehabilitation in the last year or so, with a lot of new products touting its inclusion, to the point that you might think it was a health food. (L.A. Times writer Jerry Hirsch wrote about that in 2008, and here's a nice story by New York Times writer Kim Severson.)

Never mind that sugar -- sucrose -- is made up of one unit of fructose and one unit of glucose, to which it is broken down when it enters the body. HFCS is made up of very similar proportions of fructose and glucose (55% and 45%) -- the main difference being that the fructose and glucose are already detached in the syrup.

By virtue of the way they bind and detach to the receptors in our mouths, different sugars can indeed taste distinct from one another (and so can artificial sweeteners). Fructose reportedly tastes sweeter than sucrose, so you might imagine that HFCS-sweetened drinks could taste different in the mouth. There are also recent reports that overconsumption of fructose in particular may induce metabolic changes that raise the risk for diabetes and heart disease.

But again -- since the fructose levels in high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, there's not much reason to suppose that Pepsi Throwback and other "natural sugar" drinks are any healthier.

Read an article about HFCS's fall from grace -- "Dark Sugar: The Decline and Fall of High-Fructose Corn Syrup" by Daniel Engber -- at Slate.com.

-- Rosie Mestel

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