It’s the real …HFCS?

The front page of today’s Wall Street Journal carried an article discussing a sticky problem for Coke. (See related article in the San Diego Union Tribune) It seems that our burgeoning population of friends from south of the border prefer their Coke the old Mexico way. Not only do they prefer it, they’re willing to pay a lot more for it (up to $1.25 per 8 ounce bottle) while the less expensive one dollar per 20 ounce American stuff languishes on the shelf.

Why? Not because the Hispanic population is nostalgic for the dinged up, blue, old-fashioned bottle stamped “Hecho en Mexico,” but because they think it tastes better.

Fans insist the Mexican cola, made with cane sugar, has a better “mouth feel” than the U.S. formula.

One connoisseur of soft drinks observes that

Cane sugar gives it [Mexican Coke] a cleaner taste.

Why is this a problem for Coke? Because sales of Mexican Coke are on the rise while sales of the U.S. bottled variety are on the decline. And, since the profit margin of Coke made in Mexico is much, much less than on that made in this country, Coke’s bottom line is feeling the pinch.

Why doesn’t Coke just make it here in the good ol’ US of A using cane sugar? Ah, but there’s the rub.

As the Wall Street Journal article points out:

U.S. bottlers switched from cane sugar to high-fructose corn syrup in the 1980s to cut costs.

Coke and Pepsi have been toe-to-toe competitors for ages, and Coke had always come out on top. Until the early 1980s. Until that time both companies were sweetening their drinks with cane sugar (sucrose). Then Pepsi reformulated their drinks and began using high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The marketing geniuses at Pepsi initiated the “Pepsi Challenge,” in which Pepsi challenged Coke to a blind taste test. If you were around at that time, you would have encountered people offering you a taste of two unlabeled cola beverages. You were supposed to taste, then select the one you thought was tastier. According to Pepsi, the vast majority of people picked Pepsi as their favorite. I took the “Pepsi Challenge” myself at least a dozen times, and each and every time I picked Coke as the better tasting of the two. However, by Pepsi’s accounting, I was in the minority. But I can attest to – at least in my mouth – the “cleaner” taste and better “mouth feel” of the cane sugar sweetened drink.

After this bit of Pepsi bravado the executives at Coke realized that they had a problem. Not only were Pepsi sales soaring at their product’s expense, but their product cost more to make, putting a double hickey on their bottom line. Consequently, the decision was quickly made to change the sweetener in Coke from sucrose to HFCS.

Thus was born New Coke.

What a marketing gimmick! People still argue over whether the resulting hoorah was plotted by the marketing folks at Coke or if they just serendipitously blundered into it. Suddenly no one was thinking about Pepsi any longer; instead they were caught up in the debate over the taste merits of New Coke verses ‘old’ Coke.

Old Coke, made with sucrose, became Classic Coke. But then a funny thing happened over the years. Classic Coke began to morph into New Coke, at least in the ingredients section of their labels. First, the ingredients in Classic Coke changed from: Carbonated water, sucrose, caramel…to Carbonated water, sucrose and high fructose corn syrup, caramel…to Carbonated water, sucrose and/or high fructose corn syrup, caramel…to Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, caramel…to finally Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel… And, New Coke went the way of the Dodo bird.

In my local supermarket there is only Classic Coke and in the large bottles it is labeled: Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel… In the smaller bottles and cans it is still labeled Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucrose, caramel…

So, the big question is: who cares? What difference does it make that Coke has finally accomplished what it set out to do in the early 1980s, which is to have its product made with the less expensive HFCS?

It matters because of the difference between fructose and sucrose and what they do to us metabolically.

Plain table sugar, sucrose, is a disaccharide, which is a sugar made of two sugar molecules. Sucrose is made of equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Fructose is a monosaccharide (one sugar). So, if you eat two teaspoons of table sugar you get one teaspoon of glucose and one teaspoon of fructose. If you eat two teaspoons of fructose you get two teaspoons of fructose.

High fructose corn syrup is, like table sugar, made up of both fructose and glucose, but with more fructose than glucose. There are multiple HFCS formulas with the fructose component ranging from 55 percent to 90 percent of the content. If you consume a product containing HFCS you are going to get more fructose than if you consume the same amount of sucrose. Since everything anymore is made with HFCS fructose consumption has increased dramatically since the 1970s when HFCS began to be made in large quantities.

Fructose is not a benign sugar. In fact, many people (yours truly included) believe that the enormous increase in the consumption of fructose is driving much of the increase in obesity, diabetes, and the rest of the disorders making up the metabolic syndrome.

Most nutritionally savvy people (the readers of this blog, for example) know that fructose is a bad actor metabolically; for those who don’t, I’ll lay out the case for why in another post. What I want to stress now is that we’ve all switched from sucrose to HFCS thanks to our fearless leaders in Washington. These are the guys (and gals) who keep the sugar price supports so high that manufacturers in this country have all turned to the much less expensive HFCS to the detriment of our national health.

Let’s let the ABC investigative reporter John Stossel tell it in an
excerpt from his book Give Me a Break:

When public interest groups compile lists of corporate welfare recipients, a company named Archer Daniels Midland is usually at the top of the list. You may never have heard of ADM, because it’s name rarely appears on consumer products, but it’s huge. It’s products are in most processed foods.

ADM collects welfare because of two cleverly designed special deals. The first is the government’s mandated minimum price for sugar. Because of the price supports, if the Coca-Cola Company or Pepsi wants to buy sugar for its soda, it has to pay 22 cents a pound – more than twice the world price. So Coke (and most everyone else) buys corn sweetener instead. Guess who makes corn sweetener? ADM, of course. Now guess who finances the groups that lobby to keep sugar prices high?

Why does ADM get these special deals? Bribery. Okay, it’s not bribery – that would be illegal. ADM just makes “contributions.” Through his business and family, former ADM chairman Dwayne Andreas gave millions in campaign funds to both Mondale and Reagan, Dukakis and Bush, Dole and Clinton. President Nixon’s secretary Rosemary Woods, says Andreas himself brought $100,000 in cash to the White House. He even paid the tuition for Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s son. Republicans, Democrats, it doesnt matter. ADM just gives.

It also flies people around on its corporate jets. When we contacted Andreas to ask for an interview, he arranged to fly us to ADM’s Decatur, Illinois, headquarters in one of ADM’s jets. I’ve seen private jets before, but ADM’s was a step above. A flight attendant served us excellent food on gold-plated china. The camera crew and I loved it. Bet the politicians like it, too.

A limo took us to Dwayne Andreas’s office. Once the cameras were rolling, I brought our the questions about “corporate welfare.” I foolishly thought I could get him to admit he was a rich guy milking the system. I thought he’d at least act embarrassed about it. Fuggeddaboutit. He was unfazed.

John Stossel: Mother Jones [magazine] pictured you as a pig. You’re a pig feeding at the welfare trough.

Dwayne Andreas: Why should I care?

John Stossel: It doesn’t bother you?

Dwayne Andreas: Not a bit.

Give me a break, indeed.

The next time you see a report on how the obesity statistics are climbing or how many more people are coming down with diabetes or how the high blood pressure and stroke figures just won’t go down, don’t blame the manufacturers. Write your congressman instead.

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11 thoughts on “It’s the real …HFCS?

  1. I grew up on the Mexican border in Arizona and can attest that Mexican coke is far better than the American stuff and that’s what we would drink (and this was before the American version was made with HFCS.) I haven’t had regular Coke in years but if I were going to, it would have to be the Mexican stuff. Funny, just the other day my sister and I were having a conversation about how much we prefered had Mexican coke as we thought it was less sweet. We also liked the little glass bottles.

    As for HFCS, that stuff is just evil. I actually had one person try to tell me that it’s “good sugar, just like what’s in fruit!” Well, I don’t think fruit is all that healthy, either. It always amazes me that “experts” tell parents to give their children fruit juice instead of “sugary soda.” Heck, that’s just swapping one form of fructose for another.

  2. You’re right. If there is a food substance that qualifies as evil, it’s got to be high fructose corn syrup. It’s probably worse than trans fats.

    In the old, old days, before I had my brain transplant, I used to actually recommend pure fructose as a substitute for sucrose because fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as much. The reason it doesn’t (which I didn’t realize at the time) is because it is metabolized differently. It basically turns to fat as well a causing a host of other problems.

    I’ve often had the same experience that you have with people telling me that fructose has to be good because it’s “fruit” sugar. It was discovered in fruit, that’s why it’s called fructose, not because there is a huge amount in fruit, althought there is more in some fruit than in others.

  3. That’s a pretty interesting article. At least in Nogales we could walk across the line downtown to the corner store on the Mexican side and get our Cokes. There’s a very interesting four-part series of articles running in the New York Times right now about the diabetes epidemic in areas like East Harlem. One part addressed the role that diet plays and quoted a citizen as saying “Kids grow up fighting in the streets, so you want to raise big, strong kids. So you give them three pork chops, a nice tall glass of soda to make them strong.” I about fell over when I read that. A nice tall glass of soda makes you strong? In my day, that glass would have been filled with milk. (Not that milk doesn’t have it’s problems, too.) So you can imagine just how much HFCS these kids are ingesting from an early age.

    I should clarify that I don’t think that fruit is all bad. I do love my blueberries and strawberries. However, I don’t think that the serving bowl-sized portions that my co-workers eat for lunch are as healthy as they think they are. They’re always hungry an hour later, scrounging for anything they can find to eat.

  4. Yes, I’ve seen it. And I plan to post on it in the near future. It’s not a website put together by a “group of concerned consumers, led by sugar cane and sugar beet farmers across America” as it says, but is the work of the PR genius Rick Masters of Qorvis Communications, an attack dog PR firm in Washington, DC hired by the sugar lobby to undermine McNeil, the makers of Splenda.

  5. I used to work for an Australian based company and we had many Aussies working with us and they all hated our soft drinks for the same reason. They would even bring cases of Aussie Coke back to share with there mates(along with there favorite Aussie beer) 🙂

  6. Interestingly, here in the (American) South — only during Passover — they release, in some stores, for a short while only, *sugar*-sweetened Coke — so people here take a RUN on the stores and buy them out…

  7. I’ve basically stopped drinking soda altogether- it’s not a good thing to be putting in your body in a daily basis- basically liquid candy; empty calories…
    A very poor substitute for water or tea.

    Although I’ve never tried Mexican or Kosher Coke, I will sometimes still break my sugar-water moratorium for a bottle of Jarritos. It’s been my favorite soda since I first tried it, and I later realized it’s because it’s made with sugar. Anything with corn syrup in it just tastes… “syruppy” to me.

    Hi Little Diamond–

    I have rescued your comment from the Junk Comments file, where it landed because you didn’t type the code word ‘lowcarb’ in at the bottom. Any comments that don’t have ‘lowcarb’ typed in go directly to the Junk file. I’ve got to do that due to the huge amount of spam I get through the comment portal.

    Thanks for commenting.

    MRE