Natural Selection

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A class action suit has been filed in New Jersey against Snapple, charging that the use of high-fructose corn syrup makes their claim of "all natural" false advertising. Deceptive advetising claims are everywhere these days-- perhaps the only thing more ubiquitous is high fructose corn syrup-- and I'm all for cracking the whip on corporations who engage in such practices. But only if the advertising in question is, um, false.

I wouldn't bat an eyelash at the appointment of a High-Fructose Corn Syrup Czar to head the War on Sugar. Grab a package of something from your fridge and check the label-- it's probably there. And we wonder why obesity is rampant in America. But as evil as high-fructose corn syrup is, to call it unnatural seems absurd. According to the article:

High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn starch that is processed with enzymes to create glucose and fructose. Critics of the sweetener charge it is far from natural because of the multi-step process required to create it.

Corn starch and enzymes. No chemicals, nothing unnatural. Critics are trying to attach guilt by association. The process used to create the syrup requires multiple steps, therefore the result is unnatural. And there is certainly a definition of "unnatural" that would support this. Could the syrup be created spontaneously in nature? If not, by one definition, it's unnatural. But I don't think that's the definition consumers would find most useful in this context. What we really want to know is whether or not there are chemical additives in our food. I don't care if bananas and kiwis grow in entirely different climates, such that they could never be in the same place "naturally". If you puree them with some ice, the resulting smoothie is still all-natural. Hell, if you liquified them and then whipped them into a stable foam (assuming such a thing were possible)-- a configuration nature probably never intended-- there's nothing culinarily "unnatural" about it. If you made a popsicle out of it by freezing it to absolute zero-- a condition impossible in nature and enabled only by modern technology-- is there anything in the final product that my body would find unnatural? If not, what's the hubbub?

The FDA has no official definition of "natural", so the use of the term remains unregulated. High fructose corn syrup is evil, sure. But it isn't unnatural.

If lawyers are really looking for someone to go after for false advertising, I have just five words for them. Fox News: Fair and Balanced.

8 Comments

What's your definition of a "chemical additive"?

While I agree completely that there are probably more important lawsuits than this one, I still side with the plaintiffs on this one. The difference is that Snapple is basically marketed as juice. And when you couple "juice" with the word "natural", I think most people would assume that you're basically squeezing a fruit (or blending a vegetable or what have you) and bottling the result. So I can see how adding another ingredient -- even one that's not "unnatural" -- would still not be considered "natural".

I'll disagree: high-fructose corn syrup is not remotely evil. It's a blend of fructose and glucose, and it's in all important respects identical to sucrose. Your body metabolizes it the same way it metabolizes sucrose. It tastes like sucrose. It's in some ways a stupid product because the only reason it's cheaper than cane sugar is that corn is subsidized in this country and sugar is price-supported.

The demonization of high-fructose corn syrup is baffling to me. I certainly agree that kids are probably getting too much sugar, usually as HFCS, in their diet in the form of sodas, sport drinks, Snapple, etc., but it would be just as bad if those drinks all used cane sugar, or that remarkable euphemism you often see on products down at the Whole Foods, "evaporated cane juice." Hmmm... what do you get when you evaporate the water from sugar cane juice...

As to the merits of the lawsuit, I think the plaintiffs are being prats. Even if you were to grant their implied definition of "natural," which I don't, what do they hope to accomplish? If the makers switch to using sucrose, that will make the product "natural" again, by their logic, but it won't be any better for people. It'll cost the company a few cents more per bottle, but that's about it.

Could it be that this whole thing is being financed by the sugar industry? They recently sued the makers of Splenda for their slogan that Splenda is "made from sugar." Which is true; it is made from sugar. The sugar industry said this carried the implication that Splenda *is* sugar. Riiiight.

I think the sugar industry is taking it on the chin these days between low-carb diets and the shift to HFCS, and I have exactly zero sympathy for them. They've been making money hand over fist for a commodity product for years. We all pay extra for almost everything we eat because of the sugar industry's incredibly effective lobbying efforts.

Reading further in the article, I see that Snapple's "Acai Blackberry Juice Drink" contains no acai or blackberry juice, and only 10% juice of any kind. Now that I find misleading in the extreme. I would be in favor of legislation requiring anything called a "juice drink" to be mostly juice, or even all juice.

Not that such a drink would necessarily be more healthy. Even all-natural juices are primarily water and (natural) sugar. Some citrus juices have useful amounts of vitamin C, and some dark red & purple juices have useful amounts of antioxidants (probably), and there might be more micronutrients in there that we don't know about. But realistically juice is a luxury; it's not health food.

And in fact you can easily find in the stores drinks that are "100% juice" but still basically fruit punch. Juice is not magic. It's not even as healthy as fruit - fruit has fiber, and most juice doesn't.

I phrased that poorly. Instead of saying "high fructose corn syrup is evil," I should have said "the ubiquity of HFCS is evil." The fact that HFCS is everywhere-- in virtually all processed foods in your cupboard-- is insidious and has potentially far-reaching health implications. That's really a blanket statement covering all sugars, not just HFCS.

Can you tell I'm trying to cut out sugars and lose a few pounds? Life was so much simpler when my metabolism played ball, but it seems to have developed a conscience.

I have to take exception to the idea that HFCS is in "virtually all" processed food.

Most non-beverage foods use regular beet or cane sugar. HFCS isn't (generally) in baked goods and other "dry" foods because granulated sucrose has useful properties that are not mimicked by HFCS. Even baked beans are usually made with sugar and/or molasses because of the different browning reactions, plus possibly some lurking traditionalism. And probably sugar isn't as big a part of the cost of goods with something like baked beans.

HFCS is used almost entirely as a slightly cheaper alternative to sucrose in beverages, and some other uses like jams and fruit pie fillings. One thing that manufacturers like about it is that it's essentially identical to invert sugar, so it gives them alternatives. If the price of corn goes up or sugar goes down, they can easily switch to sugar or invert sugar.

So yes, it's in virtually all beverages that aren't either 100% juice or made with artificial sweeteners. But prior to the rise of HFCS, all of those products were made with identical amounts of cane or beet sugar. Given that HFCS is essentially the same in every important respect (for beverage applications), and is a little cheaper, it's not hard to see why they've all switched.

In the dry-goods pantry, though, it's still mostly sugar.

An interesting thing about HFCS and sugar is that there's only a five percent difference in the amount of fructose in each - 55% vs 50% respectively (I blame The Straight Dope for me knowing that statistic). And sugar is *bleached* for goodness sake...

People use the word "natural" as if that automatically means it's good. Cyanide is natural. Tornadoes are natural.

I think this lawsuit is without merit. Anyone can read the ingredients (and more people should read the ingredients). It's not like Snapple is hiding anything.

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