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Matt Gordon, the chef and owner of Urban Solace, a modern-American restaurant in San Diego, spent months of work and $15,000 making sure the restaurant's sodas, cocktail mixers, ice cream and sauces all contained the same ingredient: sugar. A growing number of restaurants across the country are retooling recipes to replace ingredients containing high-fructose corn syrup with other sweeteners including honey, agave nectar, golden syrup and palm sugar.
Mr. Gordon's restaurant, Jason's Deli, a 228-unit chain of casual restaurants; Lukshon, a high-end Asian restaurant in Los Angeles, and Guanajuato, a Mexican restaurant in Glencoe, Ill., have spent months or even years sourcing alternatives or demanding that their suppliers reformulate products to replace high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, with sugar. It's happening at the same time that some packaged-food companies are bowing to consumer concerns about HFCS and replacing the sweetener with sugar. In the last two years, brands from Wheat Thins to Pepsi have introduced new recipes or products with sugar instead of HFCS.
For chefs and restaurateurs, ridding menus of HFCS is part of a larger effort to create a cuisine that appears more wholesome and hand-crafted. HFCS is anathema to this image. Many chefs are also convinced that HFCS is less healthy than sugar, though mainstream scientists say that HFCS and sugar have the same impact on health.
"It's so hard. It's in everything," says Gavin Stephenson, executive chef at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, who says he was surprised to realize that even the oyster crackers the hotel bought contained HFCS. To avoid commercial products that contain HFCS, Mr. Stephenson has begun making some items, such as breakfast cereal, from scratch. Replacing HFCS with sugar in items such as croissants or ice cream can alter sweetness, texture, browning, shelf stability and other factors, as well as price, because sugar is more expensive than HFCS.
"Studies consistently found little evidence that HFCS differs uniquely from sucrose," the scientific term for table sugar, says the American Dietetic Association, in a review of more than a dozen recent peer-reviewed studies and articles. Long-term data on the topic is needed, the ADA says. The American Medical Association says "insufficient evidence exists to specifically restrict use of HFCS and other fructose-containing sweeteners in the food supply." Both organizations recommend that people limit their consumption of all caloric sweeteners
The Sugar Association says that HFCS and sugar are not the same, and that there is scientific debate about how the two sweeteners are absorbed by the body. In April, 10 sugar refiners and associations filed a lawsuit against the Corn Refiners Association and most of its members, seeking to stop the organization from promoting its product as something that is the same as or equivalent to sugar.