A terrific piece in the New York Times this weekend details the decline of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a food sweetener in recent years. According to the article, this decline is exemplified by ConAgra’s decision this month to pull the sweetener from the ever-popular Hunt’s ketchup in favor of cane sugar.
And you know an ingredient is unpopular when Big Food is making a financial call like this one:
Although sugar costs more than high-fructose corn syrup, the price of Hunt’s is not set to increase. Eager for a sales boost from the switch, ConAgra decided to absorb the extra costs.
The article suggests that consumers’ perception of high-fructose as unhealthy is fueling such decisions despite the fact that nutritional science may not bear out a difference between corn syrup and cane sugar. In fact, a key “real food revolutionary” concurs that HFCS shouldn’t be condemned nutritionally:
“I’m no fan of the Corn Refiners Association, but in this case they have biochemistry on their side,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University who has campaigned against unhealthy foods marketed to children.
The Times piece is about consumer perceptions and ConAgra’s response to them, a response that has little to do with health concerns for its consumers. After all, the company is merely responding to the beating that HFCS is taking in the public arena.
But, in my mind, thebiggest problem with HFCS is not whether or not it’s “healthy.” The problem with HFCS is its cheap cost as an ingredient. Because HFCS is so inexpensive, Big Food can and does use it in an astonishing number of foods, from fast food to convenience meals to, well, ketchup. So it frustrates me to see these arguments setting up a Punch-and-Judy match between nutritionists over HFCS’ relative safety, when diabetes is epidemic because sweeteners are ubiquitous. I don’t need the “unhealthy HFCS” argument to trace a line between diabetes and a shocking overconsumption of corn syrup, along with our policy of subsidizing corn which makes HFCS so cheap and Big Food’s utter refusal to reduce its overall use of sweeteners, whether sugar or corn syrup.
Consumer negative attitude toward HFCS may be unfounded (though, the NYT article does refer to a Princeton study that shows HFCS is worse than cane sugar), but, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Is it bad that Americans are turning away from the sweetener as never before?
[S]ales of the ingredient have fallen in the United States. Charlie Mills, an analyst at Credit Suisse, says that the combined United States sales of high-fructose corn syrup …were down 9 percent in 2009, compared with 2007. A further decline is expected this year, he says.
As I’ve said, cane sugar deserves even greater scrutiny and scepticism than HFCS, but reducing our overall consumption of sweeteners is a basically good thing.