How HFCS-laden sodas came to be called ‘sugary drinks’

Posted by
June 15, 2012

Having succeeded in focusing much of the media’s attention on the evils of so-called “sugary drinks,” New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg has continued his campaign to ban sales of supersized beverages falling under that dubious definition, most recently on a visit to the Bronx, where more than  two-thirds of residents are now classified as being overweight.

Ignored in all the brouhaha over the mayor’s anti-obesity theatrics, however, was the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now gone on record as saying that the sweetener in most of those drinks – high fructose corn syrup – can in no way be regarded as “sugar.”

That distinction was made a mere two weeks ago in the FDA’s rejection of the Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to have the identity of high fructose corn syrup officially changed to “corn sugar” – but somehow got lost amid all the media coverage of Bloomberg’s anti-sugary drinks edict, which occurred on the very same day.

Seeing how the use of the term “sugary drinks” – along with media graphics and commercials depicting sugar cubes and sugar packets – has continued to be perpetuated unabated got us to wondering whether we could find where such an inaccurate phrase might have originated.

It didn’t  take us long to discover the apparent source. “Sugary drinks,” as it turns out, is U.S. Department of Agriculture ‘consumerspeak’ – that is, “one of the consumer-tested messages drawn from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that support the MyPlate communications initiative.”  Or so noted John S. Webster, director of Public and Governmental affairs for the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in response to our query on the matter.

“The term ‘sugary drinks’ is not a defined term,” Webster explained it in his initial answer. “It was chosen to convey the idea of any drink that is sweetened with added sugars. Sugary drinks includes any beverage sweetened with ingredients listed in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes honey, molasses, corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup, for example,” he added.

Furthermore, Webster noted, “We do not use the term ‘sugar packets’ to represent an actual measurement of high fructose corn syrup, which as you know is a fluid, nor is it used to represent a standard measurement of sweetener. We use the packet reference as a visual cue…for making the point that there is a significant amount of calories from added sugars in sugary drinks, regardless of the type of sugar.”

When asked to clarify whether USDA planned to change those designations in light of the FDA’s having spelled out the precise difference, and if their continued use might be confusing since most such beverages contained HFCS, not sugar, Webster replied:

“FDA’s decision on the subject petition does not affect the naming conventions for the many caloric sweeteners on the market. … If we were to focus our attention on just one sweetening ingredient, e.g., high fructose corn syrup, we would lose sight of the more important point and public health problem: Americans are consuming far too many empty calories from added sugars.”

A ‘message’ that ignores critical differences

Beyond the basic inaccuracy of describing HFCS as “sugar,” however, the problem with this “communications initiative” is that it totally ignores some intrinsic differences between these two sweeteners that many consumers might want to take into consideration when  making purchasing decisions.

In an e-mail sent Friday morning, Dr. Michael Goran, professor of Preventive Medicine and director of The Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California, asserted that the FDA’s definition of sugar as a solid and HFCS as a syrup rather than a sugar “is a clear distinction,” which “means that all the New York health ads focused on sugar are technically not correct since the sodas are mostly not made with sugar but with HFCS.”

In a 2010 study, Dr. Goran’s group found that the HFCS used in several popular beverages are delivering a fructose ‘jolt’ much higher than commonly believed. Levels as high as 65 percent of the super-sweet fructose were found in Coke, Pepsi and Sprite. “This works out to be 30 percent more fructose than if the sodas were made with natural sugar,” he pointed out. (Natural sugar from sugar cane or sugar beets is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose.)

Goran also stated in a June 7th article in the online journal Science 2.0 ( as noted here previously),  “HFCS can be made to have any proportion of fructose, as high as 90 percent, and added to foods without the need to disclose the specific fructose content.”

Goran, who said he was “surprised and happy” about the FDA’s rejection of the Corn Refiners Association’s 2010 “corn sugar” petition, told us he is planning to conduct additional studies to try and find out the actual fructose content in certain beverages and “to keep plugging away at making sure HFCS is exposed for what it is.”

He added that he believes the reality of these beverages being made with HFCS is considered  “too much for the public to understand,” as opposed to the “simple” image of eating sugar.

Of course, one reason that the public is being spoon-fed such a fallacious “consumer-tested message” just might be that while it’s easy enough to illustrate the point with sugar packets, using HFCS as a “visual cue” is next to impossible, since it’s something consumers never actually get to see, let alone purchase.

That might help explain why the “communications initiative” being used by USDA to help  guide Americans’ dietary choices is actually helping lead to a form of ‘sweetener identity theft’.  Or, as the title character in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” so aptly put it, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”