by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)

Jun 8 2009

HFCS-free sales booming

Thanks to Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, for alerting me to the current HFCS-free sales boom.  HFCS, of course, is High Fructose Corn Syrup, the liquid sweetener made from corn (see previous posts).  Food marketers have gotten the message that many people consider HFCS to be the new trans fat, even though it is not much different biologically from common table sugar (sucrose).

HFCS is replaced easily by sucrose, which used to be much more expensive.  Now, because of the use of corn for ethanol, sucrose is only slightly more expensive than HFCS.

Click on the Table to see the overall 13% growth in sales over the last year, with products like HFCS-free milk drinks, juices, salad dressings, and teas registering 1,500% to 16,000% increases.  Like “trans fat-free,” the term “HFCS-free”  is a calorie distractor.  It too will make you forget about the calories.

The irony is that white table sugar – formerly a leading target of “eat less” messages – suddenly has a health aura.  Marketers have wasted no time moving in to use that aura to sell the same old products.

May 22 2009

HFCS is the new trans fat?

Will the confusion about sugars never end?  A recent study reconfirms the metabolic problems caused by too much fructose, but public opinion continues to blame High Fructose Corn Sweeteners (HFCS) as the new dietary evil.   HFCS isn’t really high in fructose.  It has about the same amount of fructose as common table sugar.   Both are about half fructose and half glucose, and both cause metabolic problems when you eat too much of them.  So go easy on the sugars!

Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the study.

Feb 15 2009

Sales of HFCS-free foods zoom up

The bad press about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is having an effect.  According to figures assembled by Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, sales of products bearing “HFCS-Free” labels almost reached a billion dollars last year.  Fruit drinks are the biggest HFCS-free category, but HFCS-free yogurts, vegetable juices, and breads are the fastest growing. Lempert doesn’t say what companies are using instead of HFCS.  If it’s sucrose, it won’t be much of an improvement.  But no wonder the Corn Refiners think they need a hefty public relations campaign.

March 21 update: This trend is a front-page story in the New York Times.

Jan 27 2009

Mercury in high fructose corn syrup

Never a dull moment.  The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a think-tank in Minneapolis, tested brand-name foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and found about half of them to contain mercury.  HFCS, it seems, is made by a process that involves lye, which in turn is made in chlorine – alkali plants by a method that uses mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, although not as bad a toxin as methymercury, the kind that accumulates in large, predatory fish. A scientific report published in Environmental Health says the amounts of mercury in HFCS ranged from 0.00 to 0.57 micrograms per gram. The IATP’s bottom line: the process for making HFCS should be changed to one that does not introduce mercury.

This seems like quite sensible advice, but how worried should we be about mercury in HFCS? I agree that mercury in any form is unlikely to be good, but I have no idea whether such low levels do measurable harm.  For one thing, these studies did not compare the amounts of mercury found in HFCS to those typically found in foods that do not contain HFCS.  My guess is that most foods contain low levels of mercury because mercury is prevalent in air, water, and soil, especially around coal-burning power plants.  Also, soft drinks are the major sources of HFCS in American diets, but these were found to be relatively free of mercury.  This is puzzling.

If anything, these studies are a call for more research on heavy metal toxicology.  In the meantime, let’s lobby for changing this process for making HFCS, but even more so for cleaning up coal-burning power plants that supply 40% of mercury in our environment.

Update January 28: Food Production Daily has a good report on this, with quotes from the Corn Refiners.

Dec 13 2008

Those pesky HFCS commercials: a reaction

The makers of the terrific movie, King Corn, must have a bit of time on their hands.  Inspired by the Corn Refiners’ commercials for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), they have created a spoof.  Enjoy (?)

Dec 3 2008

Deli chain bans HFCS

Food Chemical News (December 1) reports that Jason’s Deli, which has more than 200 outlets throughout the U.S., is banning high fructose corn syrup from all its products as well as trying to figure out how to get it out of soft drinks.  Apparently, the chain polled customers and 65% (of nearly 3,000) said they wanted it gone.  A spokesman for the chain said they consider pure cane syrup and sugar to be “more real and…not as processed or fooled with as high-fructose corn syrup.”  Maybe, but they have the same number of calories and the same effects in the body!

Sep 25 2008

Latest San Francisco Chronicle column: HFCS

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle  - “The facts about corn sweeteners,” is in response to a question about high fructose corn syrup and the Corn Refiners’ ads.  Enjoy! (you read some of this here first).

Sep 4 2008

HFCS: Sweet surprise?


So many people have sent me the link to the Corn Refiners’ Association website extolling the virtues of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that I thought you had best not miss it.   OK, so lots of people think HFCS is the new trans-fat.  It isn’t, but is insulting your intelligence an effective way to deal with that concern?  It’s hard to know what on the website is most offensive: the videos of dumb people being condescended to by friends who think they know better (and what’s up with the race and gender combinations?), the slogans (“HFCS has no artificial ingredients and is the same as table sugar”), the quiz questions (“which of the following sweeteners is considered a natural food ingredient: HFCS, honey, sugar, or all of the above”), or the take home message: “As registered dietitians recommend, keep enjoying the foods you love, just do it in moderation.”

Let’s agree that HFCS has an enormous public relations problem and is widely misunderstood.  Biochemically, it is about the same as table sugar (both have about the same amount of fructose and calories), but it is in everything and Americans eat a lot of it—nearly 60 pounds per capita in 2006, just a bit less than pounds of table sugar.   HFCS is not a poison, but eating less of any kind of sugar is a good idea these days and anything that promotes eating more is not. 

According to SourceWatch, this website is part of a $20 to $30 million campaign to make you stop thinking there is something evil about HFCS.  Are you convinced?  If the essence of public relations is to get attention – and there is no such thing as bad publicity – they got it with this website.

And thanks to my colleague Andy Bellatti who points out that another website run by the Corn Refiners provides a disclaimer: “Materials on this site are provided for informational purposes only, do not constitute legal advice and are not guaranteed to be complete, correct or up-to-date.”  Oh.  Maybe that explains it.

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