The negative publicity directed at high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) over its link to obesity is presenting opportunities for other sweetener suppliers — even if much of the criticism aimed at the corn-derived sweetener is not backed by science.

Natural low-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose, stevia, xylitol and erythritol are finding a wider range of food and beverage producers willing to replace traditional sweeteners such as sucrose, fructose and HFCS, which is a disaccharide combining the two sugar polyols.

In the case of HFCS, the fact it is derived from corn via a chemical process is thought by many to account for the backlash against it, rather than all high-calorie sweeteners as a group, as there is little difference between them in composition and how they are processed in the body.

?Manufacturers are returning to cane sugar and other natural sweeteners because they don?t like the fact HFCS is not a natural sugar,? said beverage specialist Jim Tonkin at Arizona-based Tonkin Consulting. ?The health retail chains that have banned HFCS-containing products have strict criteria about what can be sold in their stores. Sucralose is also outlawed in Wild Oats and Whole Foods, although it is my understanding sucralose is going to be accepted.?

Another health food retail chain, Earth Fare, has banned all products containing HFCS. Wild Oats has not banned HFCS, but is refusing new products containing the sweetener whose biggest asset is its cost — about 11 cents a pound. ?The only thing that would make the major soda bottlers change from HFCS is if there were a disastrous corn crop and the price of HFCS went through the roof,? Tonkin said.

Coca-Cola defended HFCSs. ?There is no causal link between HFCS and obesity or diabetes,? said Kari Bjorhus, director of health and nutrition communications in the US. ?Given HFCS? composition is almost identical to table sugar, it is hard to understand why it is being singled out.?

?People are linking HFCS with obesity but the science doesn?t really show it to be any worse than any other sweetener,? said Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance.

Libby Mikesell, executive director of communications at the US Corn Refiners Association, stated: ?We have recorded no drop in demand from our members and there is no indication soft drink bottlers are changing their formulations.? However, Dr Tom Davis, technical director at California-based Hansen?s Soda, believes a shift is occurring. ?We?ve got no problem with HFCS, we use it in many of our sodas, but we are moving to products with lower calorie content — period. That means using other lower-calorie sweeteners like acesulfame potassium, sucralose and xylitol. We are going in this direction because it is what the American public wants. They want sodas that don?t make them fat and are still sweet.?

A spokesperson for aspartame manufacturer Ajinomoto said the diet category had grown by six per cent in the past year, compared to a drop of one per cent for regular sodas, a shift facilitated by the improved taste of low-calorie sweeteners. ?We see that as the major opportunity rather than anyone taking pot shots at HFCS,? he said.

HFCS rose to prominence in the 1970s and ?80s as a cheap alternative to rising sugar costs.