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Published: Tuesday, 4/5/2011

Soft-drink makers turn nostalgic for sugar

BY LANDON HALL
ORANGE COUNTY (CALIF.) REGISTER

Pepsico announced earlier this month it was making the Throwback versions of its Pepsi and Mountain Dew products, made with real sugar, permanent fixtures after test runs.

Throwback drinks earned the nation's No. 2 soft-drink seller $220 million in additional revenue. The brand's Facebook page now has more than 130,000 "likes." The page now proudly proclaims the product is "back for good!"

I've been watching with amazement this whole Back to Sugar movement going on. Several food companies have reformulated their products to rid them of artificial sweeteners and reintroduce real sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets. In addition to Pepsi's Throwback products, Sierra Mist touts its Natural brand made with sugar. Hansen's Natural comes in a variety of flavors and trumpets its non-sugarness; Dublin Dr. Pepper has a cult following; and Mexican Coke is becoming available in more and more markets.

Is sugar any better for you than high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? Some experts say they're practically the same, while many food advocates are pushing for real sugar because at least it's a natural ingredient, as opposed to HFCS, which came into wide use in the early 1980s because of its cost-effectiveness in soda alchemy, not because of taste.

I suspect, however, the real reason is that Gen-Xers are getting nostalgic for anything and everything associated with their fleeting youth, and even product packaging. Pepsi Throwback comes with the classic red-white-and-blue "meatball" design, as BevNet described it; Mountain Dew Throwback has the groovy font and cartoon miner left over from its 1960s inception. Both come in bottles as well as cans.

How do real-sugar sodas taste? Last summer we had a little newsroom blind test, and sugar-based Coke and Dr. Pepper generally were preferred over the HFCS versions. A downside is that real-sugar sodas are a lot more expensive; a 12-pack of Pepsi on Amazon goes for $27.95.

So far, Coca-Cola doesn't appear to have any plans to match its rival, probably because it's beating Pepsi without sugar. Diet Coke recently overtook Pepsi as the nation's second-most-slurped soft drink.

If sugar does indeed taste better, Coke won't admit it. When I e-mailed the company for that taste-test post, spokesman Gorki A. De Los Santos replied that its research "shows that there is no perceptible taste difference between the products. … Whether sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or sugar, a Coke is a Coke and both are 'the real thing.'

"Also, as you might imagine, taste is a complex sense and is affected by many things, including the food you may consume with the product, the size of the glass, and amount of ice in the glass, the temperature of the beverage, etc. Some consumers have told us that they enjoy the sensation of drinking Coca-Cola out of a glass bottle, so perhaps, that is influencing their perception of the taste."

Are you nostalgic for sugar, and if you're a soda drinker, what brand sweetened your childhood tooth? Shasta? Fresca? Orange Crush? For me, it was Welch's Grape, 25 cents a can at the trailer-park vending machine in Terre Haute, Ind.

For better or worse, that's what got me started.



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