If there was Twitter for food only, today’s trending topic would have been the Big News that the Corn Refiners Association (yes, there are lobbyists for people who refine corn) is asking the Food and Drug Administration to rename high-fructose corn syrup (aka HFCS) “corn sugar.” This, the latest in the corn industry’s attempts to restore the tarnished reputation of its omnipresent by-product. Tara Parker-Pope, health blogger for the New York Times, quotes Audrae Erickson, president of CRA, who explains:
Clearly the name is confusing consumers. Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.
Clearly the name is confusing? That must explain the PR campaign the corn refiners embarked on not long ago (cutely dubbed “sweet surprise“) to un-confuse consumers. But now, focus group results in hand, industry is doing what they do even better than PR: lobby the federal government to get its way.
But as Food Politics author Marion Nestle succinctly points out, “HFCS is the new trans fat.” In other words, the public, driven by an ingredient-obsessed approach to healthy eating has latched on to HFCS as the black sheep de jure. I don’t even want to get into the debate over whether or not HFCS has caused the obesity epidemic (Professor Nestle says no and I believe her). To me, that has always been besides the point.
The reason that HFCS became so ubiquitous in the food supply, the reason it replaced sugar decades ago, is that it was cheaper, thanks to federal corn subsidies. This in turn helped drive super-sizing, especially of soda, as other authors have eloquently written about. But unfortunately, this message got lost in the shuffle as most of the media’s emphasis has been on the nutritional aspects of HFCS.
So now, the public has decided that HFCS is simply the wrong sweetener. As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better. Exhibit A, Pepsi Natural:
Pepsi Natural is made with all-natural ingredients, including lightly sparkling water, natural sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract.
Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It’s like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.
PepsiCo, which also owns Frito-Lay, is especially adept at this strategy. The company honed its magical ingredient swapping skills a few years back when trans fat was still the poster child for bad eating. That’s when we got “trans-fat free” Cheetos, among other new and improved junk foods brought to you by Frito-Lay. This product line “improvement” was such big news in 2002 that PepsiCo put out an entire press release to chest-thump about it: Frito-Lay Eliminates Trans Fats from America’s Favorite Salty Snacks: Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos. Problem solved.
The trouble with how Americans eat is not because of high-fructose corn syrup any more than it was trans fat, or any other single ingredient in the food supply. I realize some may contribute more than others to specific health problems, but the real issue is how Americans are eating too much highly-processed food, period. The ingredients are far less important than the bigger picture.
We need to stop obsessing over details like food labels, salt content, carbs, and grams of this fat vs. that fat. Instead, we need to talk about (and get the media to focus on) the importance of eating a whole foods (mostly plant-based) diet. One message scares Big Food more than any other: that people should be eating whole food that comes from nature and not from a factory. Industry really has no solution to offer, because their business model is based on processing nature, packaging it, and marking it up for high profits.
But Big Food can easily handle ingredient-bashing, because companies can always find replacements. Don’t like this fat any longer? We’ve got another at the ready. That new sugar is now on the nutrition hit-list? No problem, we’ll revert to old sugar. These are all just temporary glitches in Big Food’s factory production schedule. Eventually, it’s back to business as usual.
Right now, R & D departments are hard at work in Purchase, New York (PepsiCo HQ), Atlanta (Coca-Cola), and elsewhere testing the next no-calorie sweetener, or natural flavor enhancer, or some other chemical concoction to trick people into buying their new and improved, better-for-you beverages and junk foods. And with each innovation, they get to look like the good guys. How ironic is that?
As long as we keep singling out ingredients to demonize, this cycle will continue. So can we please stop obsessing over HFCS and focus on the real problem: A cheap, endless supply of highly-processed foods. And when we do focus on raw ingredients, the discussion should be about how federal subsidies keep the wrong foods cheap and the right foods expensive. In other words, we should be having an economic discussion about ingredients, not one based on nutrition.
What do you think?