Canadians following the NFL playoffs may have noticed that Pepsi is bombarding American television viewers with ads for Pepsi Throwback. In addition to coming in a can adorned with the company’s old logo, replaced two years ago, the other main selling point is that the “refreshingly retro” version is sweetened with good ol’ fashioned sugar. Which has caused some to wonder what, exactly, they had been drinking in the first place?
The answer, for those who don’t read food labels closely, is high-fructose corn syrup. It’s been the beverage industry’s sweetener of choice for decades—largely because it has historically been much cheaper than sugar. But sugar is once again back in vogue. In addition to the retro version of its namesake product, Pepsi is also offering a Mountain Dew Throwback until Feb. 22 (although not in Canada). Meanwhile, there are also sugar versions of Dr. Pepper on the market, while Gatorade and Snapple have said they plan to offer similar sugar-sweetened versions of their drinks. For its part, Pepsi says it’s reintroducing baby boomers to a taste from their childhood, noting that many customers say they prefer the “all natural” flavour of sugar-sweetened beverages.
But observers say the industry is testing the market amid mounting concerns about high-fructose corn syrup’s role in contributing to America’s obesity epidemic (although there’s not much evidence that sugar is any healthier) and the rising cost of corn-based products as more U.S. crops are diverted to production of ethanol-based fuels. The president of the U.S. Sugar Association, Andy Briscoe, said Pepsi’s move gives “shoppers another opportunity to choose natural sweeteners instead of manufactured ones” after the industry “rapidly introduced” high-fructose corn syrup to the North American market in the 1970s and 1980s. With only about five per cent of the U.S. beverage market at present, American sugar producers are keeping their fingers crossed that sugary Pepsi, as well as other soda brands, will be the choice of a new generation.