By Hilary Oliver
Rising corn prices might soon encourage manufacturers to replace high-fructose corn syrup with sugar, according to sugar industry members. And while some smaller beverage operations—Seattle-based Jones Soda Co., for example—have already recently made the switch to sugar, the motivation seems mainly to be the growing market for natural products, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent statement that it does not consider HFCS a natural ingredient.
Since the 1970s, HFCS's lower price has tempted manufacturers to choose it over refined beet and cane sugars. "Ingredients have been strictly cost-driven," said Dalton Yancey, executive vice president of the Florida Sugar Cane League. In 2005, a pound of HFCS cost about half the price of a pound of refined beet sugar. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that since peaking in 1999, the availability of HFCS has been dropping. At the same time bottled water and diet beverages have been growing in popularity.
Analysts predict that if the price of corn continues to rise because of continued demand for corn-based ethanol, manufacturers might adjust their use of HFCS and sugar. According to the World Bank, almost all of the increase in global corn production in the past three years has gone for biofuels, with the Bush administration admitting in April that the alternative fuels effort has had unintended consequences for the food industry.
Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association trade group, said though energy costs are affecting commodity prices, there is no reason—economic or otherwise—for manufacturers to abandon HFCS. Recent studies, though, suggest that HFCS is digested, absorbed and metabolized differently from other sugars, and implicate HFCS in the U.S. obesity epidemic.
While reformulating an HFCS-spiked product like Coca-Cola would be costly and likely change its famous flavor, some conventional beverage companies are already offering sugar-sweetened alternatives. For example, Pepsi is currently test marketing all-natural, sugar-sweetened Pepsi Raw in England. And beverage makers in some countries, including Mexico, never made the move to HFCS in the first place, their consumers preferring the sugar-sweetened taste.