The crisp “pop” from a soda can signals the afternoon pick-me-up so many enjoy. And with the natural and real food craze showing no signs of slowing, soft drink companies are cashing in on beverages sweetened with “real” sugar. Does this mean non-cane sugars are fake? Hardly.
A new player in the real sugar lineup, Pepsi’s “1893” is a hat tip to the cola’s origins as “Brad’s Drink” that year. Boasting “a bold combination of kola nuts, real sugar, and sparkling water,” the beverage joins the company’s other offerings of soft drinks made with so-called “real” sugar.
Real sugar aficionados who prefer an afternoon Coke kick reach for imported Mexican Coke, which has a strong cult following, or Coca-Cola KO -0.11% Life, introduced in 2014. And for those with a more hipster taste, craft sodas are taking a strong hold in the real sugar market, with brands like Jones, Hansen’s, Dry and Sky Valley on store shelves with basic varieties like colas and root beers, and niche flavors like lavender and cucumber.
The cane sugar in these products are a chic alternative to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a food industry Frankenstein’s monster and staple in beverages, breads, cereals, condiments and more. But HFCS is no less “real” than cane sugar.
There is no difference between the fructose and glucose in sucrose, the white stuff derived from sugarcane, and the fructose and glucose in HFCS, and the body can’t tell them apart during metabolism. Experts say that cane sugar is no healthier than corn syrup, with the “sugar is sugar” mantra popular among food scientists, doctors and Registered Dietitians (RD or RDN), not to be confused with “nutritionists,” who aren’t credentialed experts.
As Amber Pankonin, advisor to the Calorie Control Council, better known as “RD Amber” in the Twitterverse explains, “Both table sugar and HFCS contain both fructose and glucose. Sucrose or table sugar contains about 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Most of the beverages sweetened with HFCS use HFCS-55 which is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose.”
With high fructose corn syrup condemned as “unnatural” in the media, the perception that cane sugar is more healthy is only natural. “If you had asked me a few years ago, people were moving to diet sodas. Now they view real sugar as good for you,” said Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi to investors in a conference call last year.
But unless you have soda as a rare treat as part of a wholesome and complete diet, sugar soda probably isn’t a good choice, whether it’s made with cane or corn derived sugar.
With most Americans consuming too little of the good stuff like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and the majority of adults classified as overweight or obese, sugar soda is simply not a good idea for most people, regardless of where the sugar came from. If you can’t ditch or reduce the soda habit, diet is a better choice.
Most diet sodas are sweetened with aspartame, another much-maligned monster of the food world. The calorie-free sweetener, discovered accidentally in the 1960s by a chemist working with amino acids (the natural building blocks of life) is wrongly blamed for a number of cancers, neurological disorders and other health problems.
People with phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder occurring in about one out of several thousand people on average, are the only ones who shouldn’t consume aspartame. All babies in the U.S. and most other developed nations are screened for the disorder, receiving a diagnosis in plenty of time to prevent adverse outcomes. Unable to break down phenylalanine, one of many kinds of amino acids naturally present in many dietary proteins, PKU patients must avoid foods containing it in high levels, like soybeans, nuts and certain dairy, or risk brain damage, intellectual disability and developmental problems. Foods and beverages containing aspartame are among prohibited foods for PKU patients, carrying a warning: “Phenylketonurics – contains phenylalanine.”
There is no evidence to show that aspartame is bad for anyone else. Recent headlines declaring that aspartame causes obesity are misleading. While people who drink diet soda may be prone to overeating or putting on weight, this doesn’t mean that drinking diet soda makes you fat. As Dr. Steven Novella writes at Science-Based Medicine, “studies of substituting aspartame for sugar in a blinded fashion show that calories are reduced, contributing to weight loss.”
Barring taste preference, factors to consider when choosing between diet or regular soda include overall caloric intake and level of physical activity. “For some, the calories from sugar or HFCS are fine,” says Milton Stokes, RD and Director, Global Health & Nutrition Outreach at Monsanto MON +0.29%. “Others may prefer to spend calories differently.”
Stokes says that when it comes to calories, “spend” is synonymous with consume or choose, with each food choice costing calories from our daily budget. “I choose to drink Coke Zero because it’s calorie-free and because I prefer the taste over other carbonated beverages. For calories, that costs me nothing. With other beverages, I spend calories on cream in my coffee a couple times per day.”
Most sugar sodas, whether sweetened with HFCS or cane sugar, contain around 150 calories in a can, with very low or non-existent nutritional bang for your calorie buck.
“I think most dietitians would be in agreement that any sweetened beverage should be consumed in moderation, whether it is craft/artisan or bottled by a multinational company,” says Leah McGrath, RDN, a Corporate Dietitian at Ingles Supermarkets in several states in the Southeastern U.S. “[I]f I was counseling someone who really drank a lot of regular soda (I have had people who were drinking a liter a day) I might try weaning them from regular sodas onto fewer sodas and then diet sodas and then hopefully a sparkling water or plain water.”