High-fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad rap in recent years from the general media and consumer groups. In response, several bakers and snack producers have been removing it from some of their core products, especially those that boast about their nutritional attributes on their packaging. Marina Mayer, our managing editor, interviewed Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, about the issues surrounding this sweetener.
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery: In April, CBS Evening News aired a segment called “Is high-fructose corn syrup really so bad?” Why is HFCS getting so much attention today from the media?
Audrae Erickson, president, Corn Refiners Association: There are several myths that have turned high-fructose corn syrup into an urban legend. This is a sweetener, a type of sugar essentially, that is made from corn and is handled the same by the body as any other sugar, whether that sugar comes from apple juice concentrate, honey, maple syrup or cane or beet sugar. Yet there is misinformation about the term high fructose.
For example, its name is causing confusion. There are a lot of press reports that interchange the term, not recognizing that fructose, which is found in many fruits and vegetables that we eat everyday, is in fact, not what this sweetener is. This sweetener is only half fructose, the rest being glucose, so in essence, it’s more like a sugar. Its counterparts are made from cane or beet or honey.
It’s really just the confusion that’s been fueled in part by inaccuracies that have been perpetuated in the media. This is a very safe ingredient. In fact, many credible institutions have recognized this sugar as being safe, the chief among them being the Food & Drug Administration, which ruled on its safety back in 1983 and again in 1996. And then other institutions like the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association, which recognized this is just another type of sugar. It doesn’t contribute to obesity any differently than cane sugar, which is very caloric. In fact, the [American Dietetic Association] indicates it’s indistinguishable to the human body from table sugar.
SF&WB: Why has the movement gained so much traction during the past two to three years, especially among retailers and consumers?
Erickson: It’s because of the perpetuation of these abnormally high pure fructose studies in the quest for some researchers to find what they think may be a holy grail to obesity. Although none exists, we know it’s calories in and calories out, they have constructed tests, which are not representative of the human diet. What they’ve done is fed 30-60% of the caloric intake first to rats, then humans, looking for significant results, and then talked about their results as though it was high-fructose corn syrup.
Then you also have some competing sweetener interest in the marketplace fanning the flames of this urban legend for their own economic interests at great expense to the health and well-being of consumers. The press and the public really haven’t had time to study what is fructose and what is glucose and are easily misled by the terms and these studies.
SF&WB: Why have so many bakers, especially mainstream ones, begun to move away from using HFCS? How much is consumer-driven, retailer-driven and price-driven?
Erickson: Some food and beverage manufacturers have tried to take advantage of what is a very tight economy and having engaged in a marketing tactic, or marketing ploy, to suggest that their product is somewhat healthier or changed or new and improved, and have done so by switching out one sugar for another.
For some in the premium lines in the baking industry, that has allowed them to raise their prices in a down economy. They’ve tried to use this tactic to get one leg up on the competition when in fact all our analysis shows that those companies that have engaged in this marketing ploy have not increased market share. That’s because consumers do not walk into a grocery store with high-fructose corn syrup as a top-of-mind purchasing issue. They’re after brands, price, quality and value, but brands that their families enjoy and like to eat everyday.
We believe that the efforts that we’re engaged in to educate the consumers about this versatile ingredient. Moreover we are demonstrating that many of the products that are on the grocery store shelf are made possible because of the functional attributes of high-fructose corn syrup, and brought to consumers at an affordable price and high quality, which is what they expect. When we get this information in front of them, they’re much more favorably inclined toward high-fructose corn syrup.
SF&WB: What could happen when bakers and snack producers eliminate HCFS from the recipe?
Erickson: I think it will negatively affect high-quality brands that enjoy strong consumer taste preferences. To switch out one sweetener for another certainly would impact a lot of foods and beverages because high-fructose corn syrup does not mask fruit and spice flavors like sugar does.
Equally important, it can have other functional implications for high-quality brands.
For example, it can affect moisture retention, product freshness and shelf-life stability. It can affect the other functional attributes about keeping ingredients easily mixed. In baked goods, that moisture retention is so important in high-fiber products. In some snack products, let’s take crackers, for instance, having a slight amount of moisture, depending on the amount of ingredients used, increases palate ability and baking characteristics in foods because of the two simple sugars that are in high-fructose corn syrup. They’re actually more fermentable when it’s in the form of high-fructose corn syrup than when it’s in sugar. That’s because glucose is not attached to the fructose, and that increases fermentation.
So there are significant functional attributes for baked goods and snack goods.
SF&WB: Could you describe your campaign to “set the record straight” on HFCS?
Erickson: Our goal is to provide science-based facts to consumers, to correct the record about high-fructose corn syrup and essentially set the record straight that this is a sugar. All sugars should be enjoyed in moderation just like all foods. [We need to] educate the consumer about these basic facts, including that it’s equally caloric and handled the same by the body than other caloric sugars. It’s equally sweet and that in essence it’s natural and there are no artificial ingredients. The FDA has clarified that it is natural. These are all important for consumers.
It is a national campaign, coast to coast. It is a multi-medium campaign. It’s employing both paid and earned media in various mediums, everything from TV to online to public relations. There are multiple components to this campaign because we want to reach consumers where they are and share the facts with them so they can make sound dietary decisions.
SF&WB: How does First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight against childhood obesity play into the use of HFCS in many snacks and baked goods?
Erickson: We applaud the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama because she has taken to getting to the essence of the issue: that obesity stems from an imbalance in calories in versus calories out. She encourages Americans to get moving and to be aware of how many calories they’re consuming in essence. That’s the right approach in order to achieve long-term results.
We applaud that she’s not singling out certain foods or ingredients because that will not solve obesity and recognizing that all foods have a role in a healthy diet. And she’s partnering with entities that have the ability to get that message out broadly.
We think it’s an outstanding campaign. Our efforts compliment it because we are educating consumers about caloric sweeteners and providing science-based facts that feed into the overall important message of how to address obesity and overweight conditions in America. That is recognizing that calories play a huge role and that however many calories we take in, we have to find a way to burn them off in our daily activities.
SF&WB: Likewise, what impact might the Dietary Guidelines have on the use of HFCS?
Erickson: We don’t anticipate high-fructose corn syrup being singled out because the government has long recognized what sugars are, and it is in fact the government that has identified high-fructose corn syrup as a type of sugar. We expect that the messaging in the dietary guidelines about the roles of different foods will continue and perhaps build
upon the www.mypyramid.gov, which partners with calories in, calories out. It’s an important campaign that the White House is augmenting.
SF&WB: Would you ever change the name, HCFS?
Erickson: Yes, if I could be queen for a day. This is an ingredient that clearly has a misleading name. It has served to confuse consumers because they believe that it’s high in fructose, and we believe that consumers ought to be able to recognize all added sugars in a diet. Whether those added sugars come from cane and beet or from honey or from fruit juice concentrate or from fancy-named ingredients like agave nectar, we think it’s important that all added sugars become commonly understood by consumers. We are very supportive of any initiatives that undertake that important endeavor. There aren’t any activities by the government to address that important component of the dietary supply.
SF&WB: What do you say to those shoppers who pride on eating healthy and have cut out HFCS from their diets?
Erickson: We say that a sugar is a sugar, whether it comes from corn, cane or beet. Our bodies actually can’t tell the difference. Highly credible institutions have confirmed this fact. Even leading food experts who often criticize the food industry do agree and have been vocal about that. Chances are, what they heard before, were not about high-fructose corn syrup at all. That it’s an urban legend. What is important is that consumers get the facts about this versatile ingredient because when they do, they’re in for a sweet surprise. That’s why we named our website Sweet Surprise, and that’s the tagline of our ad.
SF&WB: How should bakers and snack producers respond to retailers who don’t want to stock snacks and baked goods that contain HFCS in them?
Erickson: First, they should challenge those switching out marketing ploys by other companies or retailers and partner with others in the industry to educate the consumer about this important ingredient. This ingredient is made in America, from corn grown in America. There’s no more America-oriented sweetener than high-fructose corn syrup. There’s no other commonly used sweetener that’s imported. It creates jobs here at home and has long been a staple of the U.S. food supply both as high-fructose corn syrup but importantly in the form of corn, which Americans identify with strongly and favorably.
Together, we can address these misperceptions in the marketplace and tell consumers that in fact, the reverse is true than from what they’ve been hearing. What they’ve been hearing is inaccurate allegations, and the truth is that this is the same sweetener for them. The body can’t tell the difference between it and other caloric sweeteners, but their pocketbooks can tell the difference. The brands that they put into their grocery carts and take home to their families, day in and day out, some will not be possible without this ingredient.