The decline and fall of high-fructose corn syrup.

The state of the universe.
April 28 2009 4:15 PM

Dark Sugar

The decline and fall of high-fructose corn syrup.

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Some flavor experts are skeptical, though. They point out that the formulation of high-fructose corn syrup was precisely calibrated to mimic the taste of sucrose before it was subbed into soft drinks in the early 1980s. (Coca-Cola spokesmen have been particularly adamant that there is no perceivable taste difference between the two.) Scientists have tried to evaluate the relative flavors of pure sugars: A 1996 study, for example, found that fructose, glucose, and sucrose were indistinguishable as long as doses were matched for sweetness intensity. Other research suggests that the taste of fructose has a quicker onset while the taste of glucose builds slowly and tends to linger. But no readily available studies have compared the flavor profiles of sucrose and HFCS.

That said, widespread anecdotal reports suggest that people really can tell the difference between sugar-sweetened and HFCS-sweetened colas. (I'm pretty sure I can taste it myself.) What's less clear is whether one is really any better than the other. Despite the enthusiasm for sugar-sweetened Coke and all-natural iced tea, informal taste tests have yielded ambiguous results. In a street survey conducted by the Toronto Star, most passers-by preferred regular Coke to the Passover version; several folks described the latter as tasting like aspartame. A similar confusion beset the Snapple testers at Fast Company: One described the HFCS version as tasting "more natural" while another dismissed the all-natural version for its "chemical taste."


Let's review: HFCS isn't healthy, but there's no reason to believe it's any worse for you than cane or beet sugar; HFCS is just as "natural" as any other sweetener, at least according to the U.S. government; and while HFCS seems to have a slightly different taste from pure sucrose, many people prefer it. So why are we abandoning high-fructose corn syrup? It doesn't matter how weak each claim is on its own terms; together, they seem irrefutable. You can win over hypochondriacs with one argument, environmentalists with another, and gourmands with a third. That's the beauty of the three-pronged critique: It's customizable. The foodies haven't just killed HFCS—they've stuck a fork in it.

Correction, April 29, 2009: The original version of this article described sucrose as a "mixture" of fructose and glucose. It is a disaccharide—a compound of the two. (Return to the corrected sentence.)