Pepsi Throwback Uses Real Sugar, but Is It Better for You?

A woman drinking brown soda through a straw.

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We at TreeHugger are no fans of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS); as Daniel Engber writes in Slate, "A growing body of research has led some scientists to wonder whether the increased consumption of fructose over the past few decades might be responsible for rising rates of obesity." Studies have also linked it to linked it to diabetes and hypertension.

It is made from highly subsidized corn, using lovely ingredients like caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. According to Grist, these can be tainted with mercury during manufacture. (it is even called "mercury grade.")

It is also cheap and American made, so manufacturers of foodlike substances were happy to use a lot of it. In the 1980s, the soda pop companies switched over. Now Pepsi is offering Throwback, sweetened with real sugar. But we have to ask, is this any better?

Sugar Touted As a Health Food

Filling a glass with cola and its equivalent in sugar cubes.

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The new Pepsi and Mountain Dew have about 41 grams of the stuff in each can; I got out my trusty old scale and measured that out. The paper is to increase the contrast; I put one on each side for balance. I converted the grams to ounces (it is an old scale) and spooned it out. Eight teaspoons worth. You would throw up if you put that much into your coffee, but happily down eight teaspoons of it in a can?

An excited Sugar Association is issuing press releases that say "Pepsi Throwback gives shoppers another opportunity to chose natural sweeteners instead of manufactured ones." Sugar, which everyone used to hate (that's why they changed the name of the Sugar Pops of my childhood to Corn Pops) is now fashionable.

As Rosie Mestel points out in the LA Times health blog,

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.

Lowered Prices Could Be a Driver

A woman reads labels on soda bottles at a store.

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And why are companies touting sugar now? There used to be a big difference in price, as the price of corn products was kept low because of subsidies and the price of real sugar was kept high by tariff walls. That's why the rest of the world uses the real stuff; according to Tom Philpott in Grist, sugar quotas make American sugar cost two or three times the global price.

Like most commodities, the price of sugar has dropped in the recession and the gap has narrowed. One surprising reason is that people are generally drinking less pop and more bottled water. According to AG weekly, At one point in the past year, the price advantage all but disappeared. So they might as well all look suddenly "natural," at least until the increase in demand makes the price of sugar go back up.

The Dangers of Sugar

A child drinking coke from a glass at a restaurant.

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Being natural doesn't necessarily mean better. As Daniel Engber wrote in Slate:

The unwholesome reputation of HFCS has no doubt been exacerbated by the general view that it's less "natural" than other forms of sugar. The notion that anything natural is healthy--and anything artificial is not--seems especially silly when it comes to added sweeteners. If fructose is indeed the problem, we'd do well to avoid the all-natural sweeteners in health-food products and fruit drinks, which often include concentrated apple or pear juices. These are almost two-thirds fructose--and might be significantly worse for your health than HFCS. (Organic, raw agave nectar could be even more dangerous, containing 90 percent fructose.)

Twenty-five percent of American children are overweight and 11% are obese. Children who drink pop eat more than those who don't, and are fatter; some think it screws up insulin levels and makes them hungrier. It softens and rots teeth. The caffeine is a diuretic and increases bone loss. As one writer put it, "The consumption of soda is leading our children to an early grave." But you cannot really blame that on HFCS; The obesity rates are rising as quickly in Australia and Britain and other countries with access to cheap sugar.

So don't think that the Throwback is any healthier just because it's "natural"- We all consume far too much sweetener, wherever it comes from. If you drink pop and prefer the taste, (lots of people do, although a Canadian blind taste test found that people preferred the HFCS, it is probably what you are used to.)

According to the New York Times, nutritionists and researchers who study obesity are upset by the marketing of sugar as being "natural" and somehow better for you than HFCS.

Dr. Crawford [of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California] says an empty calorie is still an empty calorie. And it does not matter whether people think sugar is somehow "retro," a word used to promote new, sugar-based versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew called Throwback.
"If people really want to go back to where we were, that means not putting sugar in everything," she said. "It means keeping it to desserts."

We are not fans of HFCS; There is no real reason for it to exist, other than to support the American corn industry and keep out foreign sugar. But as bad as it is, you can't call sugar good.