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Is That Right? "Real Sugar" is Everywhere. But is it Better for You?

If, say, five years ago you had tried to sell a product by announcing it was made with "real sugar," everyone would have called you crazy.

But "real sugar" and its cousin "natural sugar" have become selling points for many products these days, from Snapple to Starbucks. Snapple now offers drinks made with "real sugar," while Pepsi and Mountain Dew have launched vintage-style products featuring "natural sugar." It was reported last week that Starbucks would reformulate its food recipes to include regular sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.

HFCS is, of course, the force behind the real-sugar movement. Shunned in nutrition circles in recent years because it was believed to be metabolized differently from other caloric sweeteners and thus to be at the root of the nation's obesity problem, HFCS has been one of the food industry's most embattled ingredients. "Real" sugar is the anti-HFCS.

But most nutrition experts now agree there's really little material difference between "real" or "natural" sugar and HFCS or any other caloric sweetener, for that matter. They all deliver about 15-20 calories per teaspoon, and the human body appears not to know one from the other. One more thing they all have in common: Americans are consuming too much of these sweets.

Luckily, some companies are taking their drinks in another direction. While researching this blog, for instance, I came across Lipton bottled iced-tea products that aren't sweetened at all -- not with HFCS, not with "real" sugar, not even with artificial sweeteners. Now that's a radical idea -- and one that this health writer can embrace wholeheartedly.

Do you prefer products made with "real" or "natural" sugar? Why -- or why not?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 12, 2009; 7:15 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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The general public is easily fooled by the terms "natural" and "real." Guess what? Everything is made up of the same carbon atoms, the same hydrogen atoms, etc. The chemical nature and structure of a naturally-occurring compound is no different than the same compound created in a laboratory.

Posted by: mediajunky | June 12, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Also, I never liked the Snapple and Nestea drinks because they were way too sweet. Even the fruit juices are way too sweet. I often dilute them with water. Honest Tea was the first non-soda drink that I could really enjoy as an alternative to drinking water. It's so much less sweet but still tasty.

Posted by: mediajunky | June 12, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse did a ditty on whether it was greener to eat real sugar v. HFCS, and it turns out it's about a wash.

I prefer real sugar because I think it tastes better. There's not a *huge* difference in taste, but just enough that I prefer plain ol' sugar.

Posted by: lanehatcher | June 12, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The Corn Refiners Association and their multi-million dollar lobbyists and the on the payroll nutritionists and researchers will tell you HFCS is the same as natural sugar, much like the Tobacco companies got away with lying about cigarettes for 30 years or more.

Try writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper on the topic of High Fructose Corn Syrup and there will be at least 4-5 replies from the Corn Refiners Association or one of their public relation firms, painting the original letter writer as a crack pot or buffoon.

Posted by: nonneocon | June 12, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm allergic to corn and am thrilled at this new trend. I've been really cutting back on sweet drinks, but it was nice to be able to splurge with some of that 'new' Pepsi while I was on vacation.

Posted by: mstroff | June 12, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Your poll leaves me no choice give no answer at all, because I do not drink milk!

I drink only water and teas, both black tea and herbal, but yes, sweetened with Splenda. No sodas, juices or other sugary "beverages".

On rare occasions I might use some honey, but only when fighting a cold and have need of honey's anti-bacterial properties.

Posted by: ktsmom9 | June 12, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Sigh. Once again my eye catches important information the moment I click "send".

For COLD beverages, which the poll specifies, I still cannot choose one of the answers you give, but the only COLD beverage I ever drink is water. No sweetener, no flavorings (except a wedge of lemon on special occasions), and certainly no milk.

Posted by: ktsmom9 | June 12, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

I drink a mix of beverages but have started using Stevia when sweetening drinks myself. It's an herb that is used to sweeten drinks in calories and tastes really good in tea, Kool-Aid, etc. While I don't want the calories from sugar, I just don't like water all that much (I know I should). And I can't imagine nutrasweet/splenda can possibly be good for me in the quantities I consume it. I figure Stevia, no calories, natural... I buy the bottles of SweetLeaf liquid and a teaspoon equals a whole cup of sugar. Pretty good so far — it probably hasn't caught on in the U.S. yet because we don't grow large quantities of it like corn!

Posted by: NativeBlue | June 12, 2009 7:34 PM | Report abuse

To "nonneocon" ~ I can assure you, as registered dietitan who specialized in treating women with eating disorders, that C6H12O6 is C6H12O6 whether it comes from corn or cane sugar. Your body does not know, and cannot tell, the differance.

There maybe legit reasons to avoid HFCS, but these reasons - concerns about Big Agra Buisness and unsustainable farming practises - have nothing to do with your body's metabolic pathways or health (and can often also be applied to the cultivation of cane sugar as well).

Bottom line: all things in moderation, including simple carbohydrates, no matter the source.

Posted by: managingthebasics | June 12, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

I get that "everything in moderation" is good...btw that is very close to the mantra of the corn refiners association commercials mr/miss dietician.

I am an educated consumer and I know there IS a difference. Sugar is not stable in products it starts to break down over time. That is why HFCS has been used to heavily, it is more stable and allows products to be manufactured in one area of the country and then shipped to the other. It also allows companies to manufacture baked goods weeks in advance without fear of having the sugar crystalize out of the product. It also behaves a lot better in baked goods than sugar. If it were the same as sugar why is it not called liquid sugar. If it is the same as sugar why does it come from corn and not sugar cane.

Finally- if it is indeed like sugar, why then is it in products that do not normally have sugar in them..? Have you ever been to the grocery store ever? HFCS is in EVERYTHING! Corn chips, potato chips pasta sauce, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, soups, breads, pies, salsa, cheese dip. It is in everything. I think the point starbucks is making is that the food products it will soon have will be closer to what you might make at home. And don't dare tell me you have never made and eaten a cake, bread or baked good at home! Do you reach for the HFCS when you cook at home?

Posted by: tb610 | June 13, 2009 1:16 AM | Report abuse

Try Agave as a sweetener, low glycemic and truly natural -- in other words, not sugar cane stripped completely of all fiber, etc. until you end up with a white powdery substance, not too different from crack cocaine.

But Agave is a whole different ballgame -- Google it and expand your horizons. Also, Stevia (liquid tincture, you can buy it at Whole Foods and similar stores) -- a few drops in your favorite hot beverage at breakfast -- coffee or tea -- is very sweet and does not mess with your blood sugar, etc. -- which means you won't get the typical mid-morning "crash" at work. Ditto for agave -- put it in your coffee or tea as well.

I'm no RD, just a lay person, but I know from experience how these various types of sweeteners affect my body/brain. And please, please, no more Splenda, my god, you're consuming a bunch of chlorine molecules, it's just not natural. Do normal "crack cocaine" sugar before you do Splenda.

Posted by: jjjjjjj | June 13, 2009 1:40 AM | Report abuse

Although we can't dictate each other's preferences, if you've traveled in Europe, you've likely noticed that cakes, cookies, and even soft drinks are not as sweet as those in the US. To further prove this point, try baking cookies at home and then compare them to the storebought version--usually they are not nearly as sweet. For reasons I can't begin to understand, it seems as though US consumers' tastes are being steered towards hyper-sweetened drinks and food. Our dentists and physicians can tell us all about the consequences of this trend.

As far as the difference between HFCS and sugar--chemically the same, but I've noticed that HFCS leaves an unpleasant sour aftertaste and a coating on teeth and tongue. Of course, once again it may not be the HFCS itself, but the amount used...which is why I no longer drink any soda at all (including diet--I don't like the chemicals) nor bottled iced tea, unless it is unsweetened.

BTW, re bottled iced can quickly and easily cold-brew your own for very little money. Take a 12-oz. bottle of water, put a bag of your favorite tea in it, and put in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour. Quick, cheap, and fresh--skip the sweetener, you won't miss it!

Posted by: kroshka | June 13, 2009 6:12 AM | Report abuse

I take mine unsweetened.

I'm back from a trip to the Midwest - where you never have to inquire if the tea is sweetened or un-sweetened.

Unlike the South, if you want it sweet you add your own.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 13, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Unsweetened tea mostly. I sometimes add agave to a fruit smoothie or root-beer-flavored stevia to seltzer water.

I would never put Splenda on anything, what with all that animal testing. It's not just my body I want healthy.

Posted by: sarahabc | June 13, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Reply to Kroshka: good observation about the overly-sweet products sold in the U.S.

I might be wrong, but my guess is that, since sugar is very much a drug, manufacturers of food products/drinks have figured out that they can keep consumers coming back for more and more, because we have become addicted, literally, to their products. That good old sugar high. Sort of the way that cigarette manufacturers put nicotine into their tobacco products, to hook people and thus ensure a steady stream of profits.

Posted by: jjjjjjj | June 13, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Good comments, all. I do think the sweetening of commercial food products is akin to the hyper-salting that is also part of the campaign to hook eaters on the cheapest ingredients.

Good health probably rests on consuming less of sweet and salt, but you can see the attractive/addictive(?) effects, even when feeding wildlife.

Posted by: rowens1 | June 13, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I love all the great comments on this post! The biggest problem with sweets (of any kind) is that the more we eat, the more we crave (ditto for salt). So, regardless of preference, limiting intake is the key. This includes the naturally-occuring sugars in fruit as well. We need them, but only 2-3 small servings per day (one large piece of fruit can actually be two servings).

As much as possible, I limit my sweet intake to fruit. The easiest way to do this is to do what I call "perimeter shopping." By that, I mean getting all of my food from the outer perimeter of the grocery store and not going down the aisles. Here, I find fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and seafood, dairy products and bakery items. I try to limit my aisle purchases to whole grain rice and whole grain pasta, natural peanut butter, olive oil and salsa (which I use as a salad topping).

Though I still haven't given up my morning coffee, I drink water the rest of the day.

This, combined with healthy exercise and a more active lifestyle has enabled me to get down to a size 6 at an age when most women accept the fact that we "just gain weight as we get older." BUNK!

Keep up the healthy discourse on this topic - more people need to be informed.

Tammy Slater-Kendrick
Tens Diet founder

Posted by: TensDiet | June 13, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I think there are many credible sources who would disagree with your premise - especially your contention that HRCS is processed by the body the same as sugar.

For example, Dr. Andrew Weil is very critical of HFCS. If you search his site ( for HFCS you will see the criticisms he has of it -and some are quite scary. I trust his opinion fr more than industry trade groups, so I avoid all products that include it (especially for my kids).

Posted by: rbmorgan | June 13, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Generally, whatever the health effects between the two I agree that the weird thing is jusy how much sweetener manufacturers feel the need to put in their products. Home-made food always tastes better to me, and maybe that's partly because it actually has less sugar or sweetener of any kind, so you can still taste the ingredients. Of course, freshness helps too. Also- please people, don't touch the artificial sweeteners packets for your coffee/tea. No, they aren't proven to cause cancer except in extreme amounts (IIRC it took over a test-rat's bodyweight daily to make them get cancer) but they can't be good either! And yes, plain old sugar (beet sugar too, which is more common than cane sugar) is only 15 calories per spoonful. I really don't think 15 calories makes much of a dent in your diet if you add it to your coffee instead of Sweet N' Low or whatever. Tha other sweeteners mentioned in the comments sound interesting- I have tried agave, tastes a bit like honey.

But back to the overly-sweet products- I bet they'd taste as good or even better with half the sweetener, or if they won't that indicates womething wrong with the product. I really miss the Fanta you can get in Europe (had on a trip there) that actually tastes like oranges. I think this is because their major competitor there is Orangina(also actually tastes like oranges), rather than Crush, which is orange-colored but has no connection at all to the fruit, only very high levels of HFCS. So yes- taste could be better served by cutting out some of the corn syrup and sugar in foods etc.. Maybe it's just an easier way to make a marketable product, instead of needing good ingredients.

Posted by: firelizard19 | June 14, 2009 11:18 PM | Report abuse

firelizard19 makes two excellent points. The first, concerning the amount of sweetener actually needed to flavor a beverage, is right on target. Think about an eight-ounce glass of homemade iced tea. At most, you'd likely put two teaspoons of sugar in it. That's about 32 calories. If you drank another half a glass, maybe another teaspoon of sugar--48 calories total. Now compare that to 12 ounces of bottled sweetened iced tea...150-200 calories, or 9+ teaspoons of sugar per bottle! Need I say more?

I, too, am a huge fan of European orange Fanta. The US version is not potable.

Posted by: kroshka | June 19, 2009 10:57 PM | Report abuse

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