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Should Sweetened Drinks Be Taxed?

Op-ed from the Sugar Association

When you hear the word "sugar," what comes to mind?

* Is it agave nectar?

* Molasses?

* High fructose corn syrup?

* Or is it sugar?

As a representative of the Sugar Association, a coalition of America's sugarcane and sugar beet growers, it is my job to educate consumers about the scientific principles upon which our food and nutrition policies are built — especially those involving sugar. I'm always happy to answer questions on a particular study or article that's been published.

See also: Tax attack — Is it time for a sugar tax?

However, lately I find that I'm contacted more frequently about issues that don't involve sugar much at all.

The latest media frenzy came when New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg proposed a ban on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces to be sold as "single serve" beverages in places like convenient stores and fast food restaurants.

Calls from reporters, bloggers and radio producers, asking what the sugar industry thought, ensued. And the answer was always the same: Most caloric, sweetened beverages (like soda and fruit juice) are not sweetened with sugar in the United States. About 90 percent of these beverages are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. And no, HFCS is not sugar.

Think about that for a second. About 90 percent of all caloric, sweetened beverages sold in the United States contain only HFCS, not sugar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the past three years, only 4 percent of the U.S. sugar supply was used by the beverage industry.

If you think I'm splitting hairs over terminology, let me explain why.

Next: Is high fructose corn syrup sugar? »

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and its members have launched a multimillion-dollar campaign — a 24-7 advertising and social media-driven onslaught that has done nothing but confuse consumers — to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines sugar as sucrose — the naturally occurring sugar found most abundantly in sugarcane and sugar beets.

And on May 30 of this year, the FDA officially rejected the CRA's petition for the name change, saying the action would only serve to confuse U.S. consumers and could even pose a health risk to those suffering from fructose intolerance, further validating that the differences between the two substances are real and they are substantial.

Sugar is molecularly different from HFCS due to a meaningful, naturally occurring bond between its fructose and glucose molecules. Our bodies must break this bond to metabolize sugar. HFCS is man-made and doesn't have this bond.

Sucrose is always 50-50 fructose and glucose — that's the way it's found in nature (in cane and beets) and that's the way our bodies recognize it. HFCS on the other hand, comes in many formulations — everything from HFCS-42, HFCS-55 and HFCS-90 — depending on the amount of fructose present. Researchers have even found that HFCS in beverages can contain as much as 65 percent unbonded fructose.

HFCS is not sugar. Sugar is sucrose.

We have reached out to members of the media in an attempt to explain why the headlines admonishing the consumption of "sugar-sweetened" beverages play right into the hands of the corn refiners' misleading advertising campaign.

Unfortunately, most of these discussions don't seem to resonate, and sure enough, the next time there's a news story involving soda, I expect I'll receive calls asking what we think.

Perhaps I'll refer them to this article.

Andrew Briscoe is CEO of the Sugar Association, a Washington-based trade group.