Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sweet Surprise?

Today, Kelly Kunik of Diabetesaliciousness has a posting "HFCS - ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME?!" on a subject that also happened to run through my mind when I first saw the commercials for high-fructose corn syrup last week.

What are they? Well, the commercials can be viewed on YouTube or on the special website developed to support the campaign, so I won't feature that here.

Apparently, the Corn Refiners Association has decided that one of their products has received a lot of bad press and suffers from a bad perception among the public, so they're doing commercials aimed at changing public perceptions, and perhaps trying to mitigate efforts to either limit the quantity used in processed foods, or force legislators to address the issue. For example, there has been some push to have the FDA to change food labels so that high fructose corn syrup is listed separately from other sugars and carbohydrates in the "Nutrition Facts" panel (in much the same way "trans fats" were mandated to be listed separately by the FDA back in 1996 over concerns related to its role in heart disease) on foods sold in the U.S.

The high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) campaign, which was created by the Chicago office of Omnicom Group's DDB, includes some newspaper ads; TV spots which began in September; and online ads. Apparently, the lion's share of the ads will run on media that specifically target mothers, who are growing increasingly nervous about feeding their families -- especially their children -- foods made with the sweetner. They are planning to spend $20 million to $30 million on the 18-month campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Don Hoffman, an executive vice president at DDB told The Wall Street Journal that as part of the marketing effort, "the trade group will also have its PR firm conduct phone and in-person conversations with influential mommy bloggers."

Safe As Sugar

The commercials depict HFCS as being as 'safe' as sugar. The print version of the ads tell readers that lots of foods and beverages are sweetened with "sugars made from corn, such as high-fructose corn syrup" and that it has the "same natural sweeteners as table sugar and honey."

At the FAQ page of the Sweet Surprise website, there is a list of statements made to support their argument that HFCS is a "natural" product, comparing the refinement to sugar and honey. There is also HFCS Facts, which I think is a misnomer, at and the Corn Refiners Association at that gives the actual process in making HFCS. However, the Corn Refiners Association vastly over-simplifies the process.

Below, I have included a video interview with Curt Ellis who produced the documentary King Corn. In it is a clip from the movie where he and the other guy who produced the movie make high fructose corn syrup at home.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is actually produced produced by a complex series of chemical reactions that includes the use of three enzymes and caustic soda. The first step is to process corn starch to yield glucose, and then by processing that glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose. That all sounds pretty simple-white cornstarch is turned into crystal clear syrup. But the process is actually very complicated, and involves some rather un-natural enzymes and genetically modified ingredients, and it takes numerous steps to yield the finished product. More complete details on the process can actually be read online at the Weston A. Price Foundation website.

Is that natural? As one blogger (probably someone's mother) wrote "Yeah, that sounds like it was plucked off the tree."

But the reality is that HFCS is banned in many countries, including Canada and much of Europe (Technically, it is not banned in Europe, but since 1977, the EU sugar policy has national production quotas designed to protect domestic sugar producers by limiting the supply of competitive sweeteners including "high fructose syrup" a.k.a. "isoglucose" on the EU market). But here in the U.S., it is used because it's dirt-cheap, and it can cost as much as 20% less than regular sugar. The reasons for that, however, are complex. Some argue that is because corn is heavily subsidized, and while that is certainly a contributing factor (and one reason it was developed is because the corn industry needed to find creative outlets for a commodity we produce too much of) but it certainly isn't the only reason. The sugar industry also lobbies Congress for price supports and tight restrictions on imported sugar, making the cost of regular sugar artificially high in the U.S. If we were to drop those, the cost of imported sugar from places like Brazil and all over the Caribbean basin would plunge. But that is really a separate, and unrelated conversation.


As a result of the bad rep that HFCS has, The Wall Street Journal reports that some marketers have already removed high fructose corn syrup from their products in an effort to capitalize on the consumer backlash. Small food-and-beverage companies such as Jones Soda were among the first to remove corn syrup and replace it with sugar, but the movement is no longer reserved for only niche brands. For instance, food titan Kraft Foods recently came out with a Bull's-Eye Barbecue Sauce that is HFCS-free. The product "appeals to health-conscious patrons because it contains no high-fructose corn syrup, no fat and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives," Kraft says on its Web site.

Other Kraft products that don't include the sweetener include the Back to Nature product line; Nabisco Oreo 100 Calorie Pack Chewy Granola Bars; Lunchables Pizza and some Kraft Salad Dressings. "We know some consumers are interested in items without high-fructose corn syrup, so we have eliminated it in some of our products," says a spokeswoman for the food maker. However, Kraft says it has no plan to eliminate HFCS entirely from its product line.

The corn industry believes their marketing effort is badly needed. A spokesman -- an executive vice president at DDB, the agency which created the ads says "The sweetener has been getting a bad rap, and a big reason is there has been no other information in the marketplace to counter the mistruths."

Frankly, the data suggests that the ads are really not needed. According to The Washington Post, in 1966, refined sugar (also known as sucrose) held the No. 1 slot, accounting for 86% of sweeteners used in foods sold in the U.S., according to the USDA. Today, sweeteners made from corn are the leader, racking up $4.5 billion in annual sales and accounting for 55% of the sweetener market. That switch largely reflects the steady growth of high-fructose corn syrup, which climbed from zero consumption in 1966 to 62.6 pounds per person in 2001.

Aside from price, another reason food processors like HFCS is that it "tastes sweeter than refined sugar," making it a popular ingredient for food manufacturers because it enables them to use less, says George A. Bray, former director of Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge. As a liquid, the syrup is easier to blend into beverages than refined sugar, according to the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA). Industry taste tests suggested that consumers liked food and drink with high-fructose corn syrup as much as refined beet or cane sugar.

Plus, it has the added benefit of prolonging the shelf life of some foods, making baked goods softer and various other benefits that food industry types like. But we should be suspicious of advertisements like those for the Corn Refiners Association on HFCS.

Selective Disclosure of The Truth

The HFCS commercials are, at best, misleading. Again, something I like to call "selective disclosure of the truth".

For example, even if the same quantity of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has the same number of calories as the same quantity of regular sugar, that does not mean it IS the same! Also, HFCS is not just like the sugar found naturally in fruit. Unlike fructose found in fruit, the fructose found in HFCS is processed in the liver into lipids, perhaps helping to explaining why so many American people have unusually high blood lipids and need statins like Lipitor (it didn't become the world's best-selling drug for nothing)?

The bottom line is that these ads are kind of like the tobacco industry telling us nicotine isn't addictive (which they did at one time). Be suspicious.

Although some health researchers have softened their criticism of HFCS, the reality is that the science on it is, at best, conflicting.

We do know that the claims about it being safe in moderation are largely BS. Americans consume at least 42 pounds of HFCS per year according to the Corn Refiners Association Web site. Is that in moderation?

As Curt Ellis said in his interview, the problem is that it is in so many foods you would never suspect. For example, you would probably not put a teaspoon of sugar on top of your spaghetti, but you are eating the same amount (if not more) in many commercial varieties of spaghetti sauce. And ketchup ... that probably has more HFCS than it does actual tomatoes!

All of this suggests that Americans are skeptical with very good reason. The fact is that our farm bill is a joke, and as The New York Times wrote last April, "The [current farm bill] system is rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones. To change that, people will have to vote with their votes as well - which is to say, they will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural policy. At a minimum, eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn't hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets."

But last year, the farm bill came up again, and we got more of the same. If you don't like it, its up to you to let your representatives in Congress know about it -- and you need not live in a farm state like Iowa (which incidentally, produces less food per capita than California) to do so.

Author P.S., October, 1, 2010: A CBS News report examined the corn refiners association's web site that "Confirm[s] High Fructose Corn Syrup [is] No Different From Sugar," and found that 3 of the studies cited were actually sponsored by groups that stand to profit from research that promotes HFCS. Two were never published so their funding sources are unclear. And one was sponsored by a Dutch foundation that represents the interests of the sugar industry.


Lee Ann Thill said...

I almost lost my lunch when they drank the syrup at the end of the video clip. I'm interested to see that movie now though. Thanks for providing all this information on this subject with so many resources. While I know HFCS isn't good for people, and I hate to have to look for one more thing when I read food labels in the store (grocery shopping already takes me an eternity, it seems!), I'm going to be more conscientious of it now.

k2 said...

Scott -
Really fantastic, detailed post!
And thank you so much for commenting and linking to my post!
The corn conglomerate is such a powerful force in Washington, their efforts have turned us into a society that is reaching epidemic proportions of T2 Diabetes.

There's absolutely no way for us tom consume HFCS in"moderation."
It's everywhere!
HFCS is in Mouth Wash, salad dressings, and sugar free gum.
It's in the protein we eat, as now something like 90 percent of cows are corn feed.
There's such a surplus of Yellow Dent # 2, that farm raised salmon are now corn feed.

Here's a real kicker, the cows who are corn feed get so sick from all the corn that they ingest in all t7 of their stomachs, they go into a accidotic state (sound familiar?) and are injected with drugs and steroids to cure them.

I talked to Curt Ellis via email several times and he and his partner are doing a fantastic service to the citizens of the U.S.

Our country is loosing many things besides our health to HFCS.
We are loosing thousand of acres a year to farms tht once grew a multitude of food. Family fars are being bought up by "corporate farms," who only grow Yellow Dent #2 - the corn that makes up HFCS. Humans can't consume Yellow Dent # 2 unless it's turned into HFCS.
I'm ranting and could go on for ever.
Again - great post!

Jenny said...

Well, if there's anything we have learned this last month, it is that if you put together an ad full of lies and run it frequently enough, people will believe whatever you tell them no matter how many other media reports attempt to correct those lies.

And when other people see how effective it is to run ads that are pure fabrication, pretty soon everyone will be running them.

As Barnum said, no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scott,
I think your blog is terrific, and I would like to feature you on Wellsphere ( Would you drop me an email?
Good health!
Geoffrey W. Rutledge, MD, PhD

afc said...

this is brilliant and only reinforces how happy i am that i have eliminated HFCS from my diet, my home and my children's diets. we have a motto here: "if you can't pronounce it, you probably shouldn't be eating it!".

just curious, where did you find the data on HFCS being banned in Canada & Europe?


Anonymous said...

This post was amazing!

I'm currently majoring in nutrition and this topic has come up a couple times. I haven't seen anything really discussing the effects of HFCS on the heart, but if I am correctly recalling a previous lecture, HFCS contributes to heart disease far more than sugar or honey. I would like to see your thoughts on this.

Thanks again for posting the truth about the lies behind those commercials. Also, as a Canadian living in the US, I'm proud to hear that HFCS is banned in the country that I plan to return to one day.