High Fructose Corn Syrup Makers Fight Back
Starbucks, in its announcement this week about its initiative to offer tastier, healthier food with "real" and "more wholesome" ingredients, said that it is eliminating HFCS from its baked goods, along with artificial flavors, dyes, trans fats and, "wherever possible," artificial preservatives.
The release said the decision to remove HFCS from baked goods was in response to "a concern consumers have made loud and clear on the chain's virtual suggestion box." And isn't delivering what customers want Job #1 for any brand?
"Consumers should not be misled into thinking that they are getting a healthier or somehow better product" when HFCS is replaced with other sweeteners, responds Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which represents the makers of the syrup and other corn-based products.
In response to Starbucks' release, CRA issued its own, maintaining that brands using the removal of HFCS from products in "highly publicized marketing campaigns" are disingenuously feeding into consumer misperceptions. The "misleading 'health' halo" created by such campaigns "is starting to dim" as myths are addressed in the media, CRA maintained.
The association cited several recent articles about sweeteners, including one by Washington Post health reporter Jennifer LaRue noting that "most nutrition experts now agree there's really little material difference" between HFCS and other caloric sweeteners," that "all deliver about 15-20 calories per teaspoon" and that "the human body appears not to know one from the other." Another article cited, by food industry critic Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health, termed recent product reformulations replacing HFCS with white sugar "marketing distractions."
The American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association and other expert bodies have affirmed that all sugars -- whether made from corn, cane or beets -- have the same nutritional makeup and same number of calories (four per gram), and the FDA last year clarified that HFCS can be labeled "natural," Erickson points out.
"Marketing gimmicks" that ignore science and nutrition to drive sales may also end up costing consumers in functional benefits and product pricing, CRA maintains. HFCS is "typically very cost-competitive" with other sugars as an ingredient, and is used for purposes such as adding moisture to baked goods, where desirable (table sugar provides a crumbly texture) and bringing out the fruit flavoring in products, says Erickson. Consumers tend to take these functions and value-addeds for granted, not realizing that "they can be lost with no nutritional gain in return," she adds.
CRA's HFCS ongoing myth-busting campaign, launched in June 2008, includes advertising in magazines, newspapers, television and Web sites targeted to mothers -- particularly media used as sources for nutritional information, according to Erickson. The ads seek to educate and also to drive consumers to SweetSurprise.com, a CRA-run site dedicated to facts and misconceptions about HFCS.
This year, the association has "stepped up PR efforts in response to misrepresentations," confirms Erickson. While declining to specify funding levels, she says that "the commitment level to the campaign remains very high" among the association's members.