Sugar, the nutritional pariah that dentists and dietitians have long reviled, is enjoying a second act, dressed up as a natural, healthful ingredient.
From the tomato sauce on a Pizza Hut pie called "The Natural," to the just-released soda Pepsi Natural, some of the biggest players in the American food business have started, in the last few months, replacing high-fructose corn syrup with old-fashioned sugar.
ConAgra uses only sugar or honey in its new Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees. Kraft Foods recently removed the corn sweetener from its salad dressings and is working on its Lunchables line of portable meals and snacks.
The turnaround comes after three decades during which high-fructose corn syrup had been gaining on sugar in the American diet. Consumption of the two finally drew even in 2003, according to the Department of Agriculture. Recently, though, the trend has reversed.
Per capita, American adults ate about 44 pounds of sugar in 2007, compared with about 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup.
"Sugar was the old devil and high-fructose corn syrup is the new devil," said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst at Mintel International, a market research company.
Blamed for hyperactivity in children and studied as an addictive substance, sugar has had its share of image problems. But the widespread criticism of high-fructose corn syrup has made sugar look good by comparison.
Most scientists do not share the perception. Though research is still under way, many nutrition and obesity experts say sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are equally bad in excess. But, as is often the case with competing food claims, the battle is as much about marketing as it is about science.
But the most common argument has to do with the rapid rise of obesity in the United States, which began in the 1980s, not long after industrial-grade high-fructose corn syrup was invented. As the amount of the sweetener in the American diet has expanded, so have Americans.