ARE REFINED SUGARS THE NEXT TO BE DROPPED?

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Picking up on the wave of consumer support for retailer-generated bans on trans fats and like ingredients, Earth Fare here has announced it will spend the remainder of the year removing all products that contain high fructose corn syrup from its shelves. Center Store categories most affected by this change include carbonated soft drinks and energy bars.Although some top-selling

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Picking up on the wave of consumer support for retailer-generated bans on trans fats and like ingredients, Earth Fare here has announced it will spend the remainder of the year removing all products that contain high fructose corn syrup from its shelves. Center Store categories most affected by this change include carbonated soft drinks and energy bars.

Although some top-selling items in these categories will be removed, the long-term benefits should more than compensate for any lost sales, said Troy DeGroff, director of sales and marketing for the nine-store health foods retailer.

"Short term, it may hurt us a little bit. Long term, I think it's going to build a lot of customer trust and loyalty. They are going to see it reinforces what we have been saying is our mission: to look out for people's health and be a natural foods supermarket," he said.

According to DeGroff, soda is not a large category for Earth Fare, and its stores only devote between 12 to 20 feet to the category. Of that, he said he expects about 30%, or 12 to15 stockkeeping units, will be weeded out. For energy bars, the story is much the same.

"We looked at the energy bar category, and a lot of the energy bars that are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup are already sold in Wal-Mart for just pennies above what our cost is. So it's not healthy for you. We can't sell it at a competitive price. I think we can afford to lose this, even though some of them are our top-selling energy bars."

Scott Van Winkle, managing director at Adams Harkness, Boston, said Earth Fare's decision is bold and demonstrates retailers' ability to lead opinion as a way of engendering customer loyalty. In his opinion, all nutritional labels should disclose added sugars. Natural grocery stores are perfectly suited to be the leaders of this consumer education-focused revolution, he said.

"It is in the best interests of the health food retailers to manage their merchandise to reflect current food and nutrition trends. But this is a little bolder than most of the responses I have seen. This will narrow [Earth Fare's] offerings of good-tasting packaged foods. I would anticipate a slight, negative impact in the center of the store as a result," he said.

Van Winkle added that he doesn't expect mainstream grocers will take similar action in response to this ingredient.

"I doubt any will go quite this far anytime soon," he said.

According to Earth Fare's DeGroff, high fructose corn syrup is a much more prevalent ingredient in mainstream consumer packaged goods products and can be found in many items like bread, peanut butter and juice. Overconsumption of refined sugars has often been linked to cases of Type II diabetes, and has been named as a contributing factor to the nation's obesity epidemic. Yet new studies from the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech have researchers disputing those ties.

The issue was highlighted during a recent workshop called "The Highs and Lows of High Fructose Corn Syrup," co-sponsored by the CFNP and the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, University of Maryland, and included leaders in the fields of carbohydrate chemistry, nutritive sweeteners and human metabolism. Speakers at the meeting noted that HFCS is also identical in composition to table sugar and both are processed by the body in much the same way.