If you're a food manufacturer, you know you're in trouble when something you produce scares people more than Mad Cow disease.
When the market research firm NPD Group issued its most recent Food Safety Monitor study of attitudes among American consumers, 65 per cent of respondents said they were concerned that high-fructose corn syrup posed a health hazard in the food they might eat over the next month. While that figure was less than the 82 per cent who flagged E. coli, it was still 5 per cent more than those concerned about Mad Cow.
All of which suggests that advertising can only do so much to change people's attitudes.
We should probably back up a bit. A little over a decade ago, the subject of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) began to creep into conversations among moms and other grocery shoppers who had heard that the additive might be moderately harmful to humans. Researchers probed the possibility that the human body might metabolize HFCS differently, and that its status as a preferred sweetener over sugar was helping to cause an epidemic of obesity.
In part, the concerns were fuelled by a growing wariness toward the mammoth agribusiness sector and its assistance in jolting the per-capita consumption of sugar among Americans by 19 per cent from 1970 to 2005. The average American increased their consumption of HFCS from 45.7 pounds in 1986 to 62.6 pounds in 2001.
Celebrated food journalists like Michael Pollan made HFCS an issue; even Michelle Obama expressed concern. According to the Corn Refiners of America, whose membership includes companies like Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc., usage of HFCS dropped from a high of 9.3 million short tons in 2002 to just under 7.9 million tons.
So, in the fall of 2008, the Corn Refiners of America kicked off what it calls an educational campaign aimed at "correcting the misperceptions" surrounding HFCS. Backed by tens of millions of dollars and created by the ad agency DDB, the effort comprised three TV spots.
In one, a mother attempts to shame another mom for serving a juice drink containing HFCS to children at a birthday party. But when the righteous mom is challenged to outline the reasons for her objection to HFCS, she stammers and then folds as the other mother calmly rattles off some of the corn industry's talking points about the additive: "It's made from corn, doesn't have artificial ingredients and, like sugar, is fine in moderation."
The effort may be unprecedented, since it is aimed at consumers who can't even directly buy HFCS; it is only used as an industrial additive. But food manufacturers under pressure from shoppers to make their products appear more natural have embraced the sentiment, splashing "non-HFCS" claims on their packaging, and turning once again to cane sugar and as an ingredient. (What's old is new: while non-HFCS foods may be trendy, their popularity actually echoes the 1960s and '70s, something made explicit by the creation of sugar-fuelled, nostalgia-tinged soda pops like Pepsi Throwback.) Even the use of the word 'natural' is fraught with controversy, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permits the corn refiners to refer to HFCS as "natural," despite the fact that its production requires special enzymes.
Oddly, the controversy is largely restricted to south of the border, in part because Canadian food laws permit manufacturers to use the generic "glucose/fructose" instead of the hot-button term of high-fructose corn syrup.
Last fall, the Corn Refiners of America rolled out another pair of ads, one each of a mother and a father strolling through a corn field while explaining to the camera that they'd been confused by what they'd heard about HFCS until they did some research and found that, "whether it's corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can't tell the difference: sugar is sugar."
Many leading nutritionists, including critics of the corn lobby, agree. And yet, even as the campaign continues, resistance to HFCS among consumers is growing, up 7 per cent from 2008 to 2010, according to NPD data. So even as the new ads began running on TV last fall, the CRA formally applied to the U.S. FDA for permission to use the term "corn sugar" rather than "high-fructose corn syrup" on food ingredient labels.
Already, the industry is using the term informally: the new TV ads refer viewers to CornSugar.com.
The association insists it is taking the step not because HFCS is in disrepute, but because it wants to "provide clarity."
"We are petitioning to provide for an optional name," said Audrae Erickson, the president of the CRA. "If the FDA approves the petition, then food and beverage manufacturers would have an option of using HFCS or 'corn sugar.'" She added: "Consumers clearly understand the calories of its ingredient - and its sweetness - when the term 'corn sugar' is used. However they do not when the term 'high-fructose corn syrup' is used."
She added that the CRA isn't promoting the consumption of HFCS. "We are correcting the record about what this ingredient is, and educating the consumer about the science," she said. "We are not trying to increase the use or consumption of this ingredient, at all."
Critics of HFCS have scoffed at the move, saying that empowered consumers equipped with social media will be able to move quickly to tar 'corn sugar,' if it is approved for use, with the same brush as high-fructose corn syrup.
Which may be part of why the CRA has hit a snag in its plans. After a group of sugar manufacturers filed a comment in opposition to the FDA petition, it followed up in late April with a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleging that use of the term "corn sugar" constitutes false advertising.
"If consumers are concerned about your product, then you should improve it or explain its benefits, not try to deceive people about its name or distort scientific facts," argued Inder Mathur, the president and chief executive officer of Western Sugar Cooperative, based in Denver.
"Sugar is a scientific term," insisted Ms. Erickson, noting that nutrition panels on food packages group all sugars together. "Our goal is to provide clarity to consumers."