Why did PepsiCo launch a “throwback” soda with sucrose in place of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) with sucrose?
HFCS is widely seen by the general public as a harmful and profoundly unnatural additive. In contrast, the consensus amongst experts (although there is some disagreement) seems to be that HFCS is nutritionally no better or worse than sucrose. PepsiCo has plenty of expert nutritionists that could review the arguments about sugars in the diet, but I doubt their opinions were that important.
It’s possible the balance of subsidies and tariffs that affect the relative prices of sucrose and HFCS might have led to an economic decision to reformulate. Cheaper ingredients would mean more profit and would certainly motivate a change in sweetener – that’s probably why they reformulated with HFCS in the first place. However, only a few brand extensions have been launched with sucrose suggesting they are looking at a niche product rather than a real driver for across the board change.
More likely PepsiCo are motivated by what they think their consumers think about their product. If there is a subset of people who could be motivated to try a sucrose-soda because they think it’s healthier (or tastier or more fun or more ethical or whatever) then the new formulation makes sense for the company. The perceived values of the ingredient in the minds of the consumers are more important than any objective properties.
The food industry is often criticized by using advertising to sell us junk food we otherwise wouldn’t touch. I disagree; I think they are at least as engaged in trying to work out what they can tempt us to eat. They are sending information one way in the form of advertising and listening for information the other way from taste panels, focus groups and their best judgment of their market. Consumers and consumer groups have enormous power to shape the food on sale. The problem is that whatever most strongly motivates consumer opinion is most likely to motivate industry action. The more aesthetically unattractive parts of the food system change without consideration of the real costs, benefits or priorities.
A good example is the recent campaign against “pink slime” in ground beef. When consumers became aware of the product the fast food industry dropped it quickly. Pink slime was ugly but while there were a lot of opinions posted, there was little evidence that it was either nutritionally or microbiologically worse than conventional ground beef. Without any obvious benefit, we will now have to raise more animals to generate the same amount of meat. The food industry responded to consumer demand but I don’t think we got a better food system as a result.
[Image from Wikipedia]