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Originally published February 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 5, 2007 at 8:20 AM

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Seattle soda maker ends the sweet talk, opts for sugar

Peter van Stolk has an abiding enthusiasm for all things Jones Soda. As the Seattle company's founder and CEO, he revels in weird flavors...

Seattle Times business reporter

Peter van Stolk has an abiding enthusiasm for all things Jones Soda.

As the Seattle company's founder and CEO, he revels in weird flavors like turkey and gravy, soda names like "Bohemian Raspberry" and the funky, black-and-white label pictures that come from customers.

Lately, he's stoked about the decision to use pure cane sugar in Jones drinks rather than high-fructose corn syrup.

But all is not sweet in van Stolk's world.

He's happy to pay more than $1 million retrofitting machinery to add the new ingredient, and he's sure customers will accept the resulting price increase.

He just got tired of all the controversy surrounding high-fructose corn syrup, a widely used sweetener made from corn starch. In a years-long debate, some scientists, doctors and food companies say sugar is healthier and more natural, while others say there's little or no difference.

"I don't care what researchers say anymore," van Stolk said. "They told me 10 years ago not to worry about global warming."

The first attacks came shortly after Jones announced the sweetener switch last fall.

A Pepsi spokesman told The Wall Street Journal that Jones' claim that pure cane sugar is more healthful "just isn't true. Marketing a myth for a competitive advantage is irresponsible and short-sighted." Then Jones got a letter from the Corn Refiners Association, which doesn't like Jones' claims about sweeteners, either.

Several scientists weighed in, saying there is no evidence that high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is worse than sugar.

Van Stolk doesn't much care who's right. He just wants happy customers. For years, Jones customers have asked the company to use sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, he said, and not one of them has complained about the switch.

They want sugar, he said, "because it tastes better and they feel better about it because it's pure; it's sugar. They know what it is."

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His defense has become a common refrain for food companies that want to make ingredient changes without becoming embroiled in the confusing world of nutritional rights and wrongs.

Starbucks played the "customers want it" card recently when it announced it has stopped using milk with artificial growth hormone in some markets.

The first "Jones Pure Cane Soda" shipment went out last month, and by April everything but the company's energy drinks will have cane sugar. Energy drinks like Whoop Ass will switch by fall.

In its usual irreverent style, Jones is accompanying the rollout with an advertising campaign that recommends people drink less soda, van Stolk said, before tossing off a couple catchphrases: "Soda's a treat, not a food group" and, alluding to ethanol, "Corn is for cars."

He elaborates: "It's an indulgence, and you should indulge in moderation."

Van Stolk has no illusions about proving anything to competitors like Pepsi or Coca-Cola. "I'm not in their league," he said. "They spill more than we sell."

But he laughs when he hears that Pepsi is considering making a cola with cane sugar and has started rotating its label designs, something Jones has done for years.

Other soda companies may not follow van Stolk in recommending that customers drink their products in moderation. But Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, praises Jones for doing it.

However, he doesn't like Jones, or anyone, suggesting that sugar is better than HFCS. One of the first researchers to say there might be a link between HFCS and obesity, Popkin says there is no evidence to support his earlier speculation.

It discourages him that so many people, particularly on the Internet, continue to make the claim.

Well-known experts like Dr. Mehmet Oz, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, says on Oprah Winfrey's Web site that HFCS alters the body's ability to regulate appetite. Popkin's response: "I can find a doctor who will say anything. That's not research."

Much research into HFCS is funded by industry sources. The Corn Refiners Association and the American Beverage Institute funded a University of Washington study that found no significant difference in the feeling of fullness people get from drinking sodas sweetened with cane sugar versus HFCS.

Professor Adam Drewnowski, who led that study, says the university has rules to ensure research is not compromised by its funding and that funders can't block publication of results they don't like.

Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, declined to comment on the letter its law firm sent to Jones Soda.

She blames HFCS's bad publicity partly on a desire to find reasons for the country's obesity problem, "as if an increase in calories and a lack of physical exercise were not to blame."

Van Stolk, meanwhile, credits Jones' receptionist, Jason Kim, with pushing the company to use pure cane sugar. It costs about 5 percent more than HFCS, which will lead to a slight price increase on Jones products, but executives had been talking about making the switch for years.

An e-mail last summer from Kim moved van Stolk to act.

"He was so eloquent in what he wrote," van Stolk said. "He was just like, 'Dude, do it.' "

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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