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Caving To Public Pressure

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For jaded consumers who think their concerns aren't heard or responded to: think again. In a recent Advertising Age article: "Marketers Answer Call to Eliminate High-Fructose Corn Syrup," grassroots concerns are leading to food manufacturers reformulating their products without the popular sweetener.


Nutritionists have long expressed concern over the dietary implications of high-fructose corn syrup. That has led, in turn, to concerns among moms, affecting their supermarket choices for their families. Lots of moms have been spreading their concerns online for some time now. Pressure has been steadily mounting forcing CPG companies to respond by switching to refined white sugar, honey and stevia among other choices.
The fact is, HFCS has been added to more and more products in the past few decades because it's much cheaper. It has been blamed as one of the major culprits for the country's alarming rise in obesity. To be fair, nutritionists will tell you that refined white sugar is almost as bad as HFCS because it is also highly processed. The human body can't break either down easily, so they get stored as fat. Even worse: they spike blood sugar levels.
Food companies are responding by not only removing HFCS in many cases; they're also cutting down on sugar in their products, as well. The article cites some examples:


  • Kraft Foods has removed HFCS from its Bulls-Eye BBQ sauces and Wheat Thins crackers.

  • Kraft has cut 25% of the sugar from its Capri Sun drinks.

  • Pepsico's Snapple premium juices and teas were reformulated without HFCS.

  • Costco is promoting Mexican-made Coca-Cola in selected markets because it's sweetened with sugar rather than HFCS.

  • Starbucks has removed trans-fasts and HFCS from its bakery products.


All of this has prompted the Corn Refiners Association to strike back. Ads prepared by Chicago-based DDB depict people debating about corn sweeteners. Their message: "HFCS adds the same calories as sugar or honey–it's fine if consumed moderately." Chicago PR agency Weber Shandwick has also been retained to spread the same message to "mommy bloggers."
According to TNS Media Intelligence, the Corn Refiners Association has spent $12 million in media messaging during the first half of 2009. The association's president, Audrae Erickson said that: "the current consumer backlash hasn't affected the corn refiners' wallet yet." That might be true since many products are still being formulated with HFCS. But Ms. Erickson's statement can't hide the fact that current public disapproval has led to her organization's need to spend heftily on advertising and PR in an attempt to reverse negative public opinion.
Questions:

  • What do you think of the Corn Refiners Association strategy in citing HFCS is no worse than refined sugar? Is that a good idea since both substances are highly refined and problematic?

  • What do you think of the "when used in moderation it's fine" strategy? Especially knowing that a high percentage of convenience, processed and grocery shelf foods are made with HFCS?

  • Would you, as a consumer, be willing to pay more for products that are sweetened with unrefined sugar, stevia or honey rather than the cheaper HFCS?


I'd love to hear from you.


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Ted Mininni is president of Design Force, Inc. (www.designforceinc.com), a leading brand-design consultancy to consumer product companies (phone: 856-810-2277). Ted is also a regular contributor to the MarketingProfs blog, the Daily Fix.

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  • by gianandrea facchini Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Question #1: the statement about HFCS is no worse than suger sounds like to say to break your right leg is no worse then breaking your left one. Maybe they should have find, if any, even the small single benefit of th product and push for it. Question #2: as far as the moderated use, it's like to turn over consumers the problem. Ok, our product sucks but if you use carefully maybe you can't get harmed. Unfortunately we can't always choose what to eat, I mean a common ingredient is present in almost all the brands... Question #3: yes, yes, yes. Because the money I save today purchasing a cheap product with HFCS will be spent tomorrow for some medical reason. Not so a good bargain.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Thank you, Gianandrea, for taking the time to answer the questions posed by my post. Loved your wit and wisdom here. You're quite right: many brands use HFCS because it's readily available and cheaper. A little goes a long way. But you've astutely made an important observation: ". . .the money I save today purchasing a cheap product with HFCS will be spent tomorrow for some medical reason. Not so a good bargain." As consumers have become increasingly aware of what we are putting into our bodies, we've increasingly pressured food manufacturers to reduce or eliminate problem ingredients. Information and education are the key, aren't they?

  • by Paul Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Ted, from theWashington Post; a 2009 study found that almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, a toxic substance. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/26/AR200901260... This is a worrysome topic.

  • by Ted Mininni Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Paul, You're right. It is worrisome. Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. This all points to the need to become educated as consumers once again, doesn't it? Thanks for sending the link to this article. The more we know as consumers, the more informed our choices are and the more we can voice our concerns where it counts and make some necessary changes. Thanks, Paul, for sharing this with DF readers.

  • by Claire Ratushny Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Great timing on this post, Ted. As a former natural product industry marketer, I follow food trends very closely. Hot off the presses today from the Food Navigator: "High fructose corn syrup has had a vast amount of bad press in recent years. Consumers are shunning the sweetener en masse, and manufacturers are taking their cue, removing it from products, often to replace it with sugar. The demonization of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was sparked in 2004 when Popkin, along with Dr George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, published a widely read and much-quoted study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It noted the parallel between obesity and the rise in high fructose corn syrup consumption, and hypothesized that the two could be related. The study prompted a massive reaction .... but Popkin maintains he was just putting forward a theory that was intended to instigate further research". "We showed later that fructose from sugar has the same effect," Popkin said. "We were wrong in our speculations on high fructose corn syrup about their link to weight. "–People are always looking for enemies. We said it needs to be studied more, that there need to be further studies. Anybody who talks about foods gets demonized or glamorized–You can't stop doing what you think is right when science backs you up." This goes to show you that HFCS is not healthy when consumed in large quantities (hard to avoid since so many products contain it); but so is sugar in any form when consumed in excess. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Financial-Industry/Fructose-in-the-firing-...

  • by Ted Mininni Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Excellent point, Claire. Too much of any good thing is too much, right? Thanks for sharing this article. It's nice to read an update from the scientists who first voiced their concerns about HFCS.

  • by Ban-HFCS Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Great post, Ted. The Corn Refiners Association, especially their president Audrae Erickson, have become very defensive in their PR campaign as a result of an increase in public awareness. (For more on this subject, please see the URL in which exact numbers and specifics are given about the kind of campaign Ms Erickson is waging.) I would love to see more studies on fructose metabolism, especially as it relates to the three varieties of HFCS. And yes, i most definitely am willing to pay more for HFCS-free products. As someone with fructose malabsorption, i have found a direct relationship between consumption of products with HFCS and intestinal distress. The added benefit to avoiding HFCS-laced products is that you also tend to avoid heavily processed foods. it's nice to look at an ingredient list and understand what you're ingesting!

  • by Ted Mininni Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Like you, Ban-HFCS, I'd like to know more about how the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup. Regardless, as you point out, a high percentage of heavily processed foods contain HFCS and doubtless, many can't digest it. I'm wondering how many people out there don't know they're suffering from food related allergies still. Many are lactose or gluten intolerant, for example. Adding highly processed ingredients into prepared foods can be a nightmare. All of this points to why foods that are whole and as unprocessed as possible are our best choice. Thanks for weighing in, Ban-HFCS. You've probably given people some insights that might help them, too, today.

  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    It just goes to show, Ted, how information can spread virally, even without 100% valid research results. I, too, had "heard" that HFCS was detrimental to our digestive systems. I have tried to avoid foods with it as well as those containing refined sugar. The challenge is that SO many grocery store products are laced with these ingredients, in addition to hydrogenated oil products. Looks like the only way to be safe is to eat "real" food - not processed. Sure does away with convenience, doesn't it?

  • by Ted Mininni Wed Sep 16, 2009 via blog

    Elaine, Thanks for weighing in; I appreciate your comments. Processed foods have been a problem right along. Remember when we were kids there were few highly refined, over-processed foods in the stores. Public awareness is forcing food manufacturers to rethink their products. By removing refined ingredients, excess salt and sugar as well as hydrogenated oils, the end products may cost a bit more, but they will be much healthier for us to consume. BTW: snack foods are a bit culprit here. If that isn't a huge argument for bringing more fresh fruit into our homes, I don't know what is.

  • by Neil Anuskiewicz Thu Sep 17, 2009 via blog

    # What do you think of the Corn Refiners Association strategy in citing HFCS is no worse than refined sugar? Is that a good idea since both substances are highly refined and problematic? Saying something is "no worse" than something else does not seem like a winning message to me. # What do you think of the "when used in moderation it's fine" strategy? Especially knowing that a high percentage of convenience, processed and grocery shelf foods are made with HFCS? Moderation means what in this context? As you say, this stuff is ubiquitous. If moderation means lots and lots then it makes sense. # Would you, as a consumer, be willing to pay more for products that are sweetened with unrefined sugar, stevia or honey rather than the cheaper HFCS? Yes.

  • by Ted Mininni Fri Sep 18, 2009 via blog

    Nice to hear from you, Neil. Welcome back. Love the astuteness of this statement of yours: "Saying something is "no worse" than something else does not seem like a winning message to me." Exactly. While HFCS has been made a culprit by many nutritionists, products laden with sugar aren't any better on the face of it, are they? Still, unrefined sugar and other natural sweeteners may put on the pounds, but they aren't as harmful as refined compounds to the body. With increased public knowledge, hopefully pressure will build on the overprocessing of foods. Cutting back on sugars of all kinds is a great idea, too. I appreciate your insights, Neil.

  • by Mary Beth Smith Mon Sep 21, 2009 via blog

    The actual debate aside, I find the fact that the topic has gained so much traction simply from bloggers and media attention to be a story in its own right. Citizen journalism is alive, healthy and clearly impacting the marketplace. Fascinating!

  • by Ted Mininni Mon Sep 21, 2009 via blog

    You're right, Mary Beth. What started in medical and scientific journals, was then picked up by the natural products media. Natural food store retailers discussed these issues among their customers and then the customers themselves spread the word about the possible concerns of HFCS. And it didn't stop there, did it? Saturated oils, salt and a host of other food ingredients have been widely discussed, as well. Of course the danger with all of this is that not everyone is as informed as they should be. That's how a great deal of misinformation occurs. Still, the public's attention has been drawn to nutritional issues. Hopefully, that spurs us all on to learn more about the foods we eat so we can make more informed choices. Thanks, Mary Beth for bringing up the issue of "citizen journalism". It is an important component of this story.

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