Ever tried a Passover Coke? Right about this time of year, when matzos begin appearing on the shelves (discretely segregated from the Cadbury Creme Eggs, of course) Coke makes a subtle tweak to its formula. Because some—though not all—Jews avoid eating corn on Passover, Coca-Cola does a limited run sweetened with regular sugar instead of corn syrup, labeled with a tiny "P" next to the Kosher symbol.
Foodies have stalked this elusive beverage for years, along with Mexican Coca-Cola, which is also made with cane sugar. The bigwigs at Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta say there is "no perceptible taste difference," but people who have discerning palates and/or too much free time find in taste tests that "drinks made with real sugar have a clean sweetness and light mouthfeel to them, while those made with corn syrup have heavy mouthfeel and a cloying sweetness."
Taste factor aside, much of the vogue for real sugar soda is an extension of the ongoing jihad on high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener used in most American sodas and packaged foods. Jews aren't the only ones with arcane food rules these days. High-fructose corn syrup is routinely blamed for childhood obesity, adult obesity, even dog obesity. Florida Rep. Juan Zapata called it the "crack of sweeteners" back in 2006 and tried to ban it in schools. Bruce Watson of the popular (and otherwise excellent) blog Slashfood calls it "the devil's additive."
Last week, The New York Times announced that sugar is back in fashion, citing the new real sugar cola, Pepsi Natural. As the old saw has it, when the Times notices a trend, the trend is already on its last legs. It is certainly true that many food elites stopped eating high-fructose corn syrup so long ago, they can't even remember what that "heavy mouthfeel and cloying sweetness" was like.
But the trend seems to be going strong in product releases for the general population: According to the Mintel Global New Products Database, "natural" claims appeared on nearly one in four food and drink launches in 2008, a 9 percent increase over 2007. Meanwhile, low fat, low sugar, low calorie labels have lost their zip. The same study found that between 2007 and 2008, launches of those products stagnated globally. The Times even mentioned a new Pizza Hut offering called "The Natural" and noted that "ConAgra uses only sugar or honey in its Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees."
The demonizing of high-fructose corn syrup has led some people to natural foods out of a desire to avoid the "bad" foods out there, which allegedly tempt and confuse them. Perhaps, they hope, natural foods have certain specific advantages over processed alternatives. Maybe the vitamins are more vitaminy, the fats less fatty.
But "natural" has no magical properties. It's not even like a kosher certification, which does usefully prevent accidental violations of God's law. There are no specific traditions to be followed, no standards to be upheld. It's just a word on a package.
Henry Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, points out in an email that "with the exception of wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries, and fish and shellfish, all of the plants, animals and microorganisms in our diets have been genetically improved (often drastically) by one technique or another. Conversely, the bacteria such as Salmonella and C. botulinum (which causes botulism) are 'natural,' as are poisonous varieties of mushrooms and the hemlock and foxglove (digitalis) plants."
The substitution of real sugar for high fructose corn syrup is like the old riddle about which is heavier: A 10-pound bag of feathers or a 10-pound bag of lead? (Answer here, but we're going to ban anyone who needs to click through from Reason.com, so choose carefully.) A calorie of natural sugar is still a calorie. Weight gain or loss is determined by calories in vs. calories out. Ruth Kava, the director of nutrition at the American Council on Science & Health, a group that debunks food and health panics, says "I don't know how one supposedly distinguishes between 'real' sugar and any other kind!"
"Pepsi Natural, a premium cola made with sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract, will be sold in glass bottles in the premium or natural food aisles of stores in 10 markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle," reports Reuters. Why? After all, Wal-Mart sells organic milk these days. Why not bring real sugar Pepsi to the masses, alongside the regular bottles?
One reason is that real sugar will never be able to complete with corn syrup on price (see all the math here). The trend toward natural ingredients, especially sugar, will remain trapped in the premium product market unless corn subsidies are repealed, and sugar taxes revamped. Until then, the brawl between a calorie of high-fructose corn syrup and a calorie of cane sugar will never be a fair fight.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.