Major food and beverage companies' products are increasingly reflecting consumers' growing interest in products making two types of claims: whole-grain content and the absence of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Two cases in point: Mars Inc.'s introduction of a line of Uncle Ben's Whole Grain White Rice, and Sara Lee North America's removal of HFCS from its two best-selling bread varieties.
According to Mintel, as part of an overall greater consumer demand for "simpler" products perceived as offering "natural" health benefits, introductions making a "whole grain" claims are on a notable growth curve, representing about 4% of launches thus far this year versus 3% in 2006.
The new Uncle Ben's line is being marketed as the only whole-grain rice that looks and tastes like standard white rice. Thus far, buzz on the Web appears positive, with a number of mom bloggers' posting relief about having a whole-grain rice option that kids will eat, in contrast to many kids' aversion to brown rice. (The line's whole-grain content per serving ranges from 38 to 47 grams, depending on the variety, and all varieties are cholesterol-free.)
News of Sara Lee's removal of HFCS from its Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White and Soft & Smooth 100% Whole Wheat breads, which is being prominently promoted with banners on the front of the products' packaging, actually began to appear in food trades in early August. This week's coverage of the reformulation news in more general media also appears to be generating positive consumer-generated commentary on the Web.
However, the growing number of products making no-HFCS claims continues to draw fire from some nutrition watchdogs, as well as the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), representing the makers of HFCS.
CRA was quick to respond to Sara Lee's reformulations, with an Aug. 6 release advising the public not to be "fooled" by Sara Lee's "swapping" of corn sugar for cane/beet sugar. The ingredients change "may mislead consumers" by implying that breads made with sweeteners other than HFCS are healthier, the release stressed, adding: "The consumer will not gain from this switch, which provides no added health benefit, and in fact may end up paying more at checkout." (HFCS is still cheaper than sugar cane, although its price has crept up somewhat in recent times.)
CRA has been waging an advertising and PR battle to inform consumers about HFCS, in part by citing statements by nutrition experts that research shows the corn sugar in HFCS being metabolized by the body in the same way as cane sugar and other natural sweeteners -- and that it's the total sugar calories consumed, regardless of the sugar type, that really matter when it comes to good nutrition and weight management.
Still, according to the Chicago Tribune, a Princeton University study indicated that long-term consumption of HFCS can lead to abnormal increases in body fat. And while CRA has cited a survey indicating that only 3.6% of consumers are concerned about HFCS, recently released Mintel Menu Insights data show 42% of consumers believe that HFCS in beverages promotes obesity, and 31% say they usually look for beverages that do not include HFCS.
Experts such as Harvard Medical School associate professor of pediatrics David S. Ludwig have been quoted as stating that benefits from a switch from HFCS to cane sugar are "100% marketing and 0% science," and CRA claims that consumers who learn the facts about HFCS often view companies that market food/beverages as HFCS-free more negatively. But Sara Lee, Kraft Foods and other makers introducing no-HFCS products say they're simply responding to mothers' negative perceptions about the sweetener and their requests for HFCS-free products.
The whole-grain content of the Sara Lee Soft & Smooth bread varieties are also important components of their marketing.
But demonstrating the potential pitfalls in healthy claims, in 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported that Sara Lee had settled a threatened CSPI lawsuit by agreeing to clearly state that the content of Soft & Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread is about 30% whole grain (two slices supply 10 grams of whole grain). CSPI had alleged that the brand's marketing suggested that it had as much fiber as 100% whole wheat bread.
At the time, Sara Lee described the Soft & Smooth white bread as a transitional product designed to accustom consumers used to the taste/texture of white bread to increased levels of whole grains, according to CSPI. The new, HFCS-free version of this bread still offers 10 grams of whole grains per two slices (up from 8 grams at its launch in 2005), which is 35% of content, according to BakingBusiness.com.
Sara Lee's Soft & Smooth 100% Whole Wheat contains 26 grams of whole grains per two-slice serving, and the new formulation now includes 15% of the RDA of Vitamin D.
The sodium content in both bread varieties has also been reduced.