A ‘study’ in collusion: Cornell and the Corn Refiners

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July 8, 2014




When we refer to “a study” done at some prestigious university, we’re usually talking about scientific research in which the effects of a particular substance on animal or human subjects have been carefully evaluated over a period of time, and then published in a peer-reviewed professional journal.  A number of such studies cited in this blog, for example, have suggested a link between high fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity, diabetes and other ailments.

But that’s not the sort of “study” that recently made headlines (and even made the Today Show) after being conducted by a team of “researchers” from Cornell University.

Their 40-page paper, “Ingredient-Based Food Fears and Avoidance: Antecedents and Antidotes,” was published not in any kind of scientific or medical journal, but one entitled Food Quality and Preference.  According to its description, “This study investigates food fears that are ingredient-based, focusing on the case of high-fructose corn syrup” and was based on “results of a national phone survey of 1,008 U.S. mothers.”

But then, the lead author, Professor Brian Wansink, doesn’t exactly fit the conventional image of a scientist.  He’s rather a member of the university’s “Applied Economics and Management Department” with a Ph.D. in food psychology and consumer behavior. But he is the director and founder of a “laboratory” — the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which “is independently funded by grants and consumer groups” and “focuses on better understanding consumers and how they relate to foods and packaged foods.”

Oh, and one other thing.  This particular Ivy League “study” was funded by the Corn Refiners Association, the industry group representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup. Or so we were informed in an e-mail Monday night by Dr. Aner Tal, an associate researcher on the project.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Unlike other studies of HFCS that have attempted to determine how it affects our health, this one was intended to analyze why consumers harbor “fears” of this particular ingredient (and presumably, others as well) and to “suggest new insights for understanding how public health, industry, and consumer groups can more effectively target and address ingredient fears.”

But it gets better.

Unlike all those stuffy studies done by scientists in lab coats scrutinizing biological effects and such, this one, says Professor Wansink,  is “a really cool study” designed to help you get over any fears of food ingredients you may currently suffer from, “put things in perspective, and “become a smarter, savvier consumer.”

And the best way to do that, he advises, is to stop getting your info from the Internet, which is the instigator of all your ingredient angst.

“Read about food ingredients on the Web.  It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts,” he tells us at the beginning of a cute, chatty little video called “Who’s Afraid of Food,” which is easily accessible on (where else?) the Web. But then, this isn’t anything you have to read (although there is written material that follows it) — you can simply assimilate it from the brief, friendly classroom-type lecture he gives, in which he questions what it is “that causes people to have these terrible ingredient food fears.” First, he says in a voice tinged with sarcasm, it was sodium that was “the enemy. Then it was fat, then it was sugar, then it was, high, ah, fructose corn syrup, then it was MSG, then it was lean, finely textured beef.” Why is it, he asks, that people get all “excited and concerned” about such things “for a brief period of time?”

But of course! It’s what they’re reading at their “favorite websites” (might this be one such site, do you suppose?), rather than consulting “mainstream media” and “health-care professionals.” That, and what they hear from friends on social media – people with whom they tend to share a “cluster of other beliefs” and from whom they need “social approval” (In fact, there’s a “sophisticated scale” for measuring that, he informs us.) Oh, and a tendency to hate ingredients that are contained in foods they also hate.

Dr. Wansink’s education elixir for your “food fears”

Finally, after he gets done performing his instant in-depth analysis of why you have these apparently groundless aversions to various additives, Dr. Wansink (who is, after all, a sort of ‘food Freud’) suggests a simple solution to your problem.  The key to getting over such fears, he says, is learning “how a certain ingredient is made or produced” along with its history.

But wait – it gets even better!

To demonstrate the hypothesis that such knowledge can help consumers who might otherwise “exaggerate and overweigh perceived risks” of a product “such as high-fructose corn syrup” (as the study’s summary puts it), half of the mothers surveyed were given a three-sentence recap of a sweetener’s history while the other half weren’t.  And sure enough — those who received the information rated it as healthier than those who didn’t.

So did learning a few “real” facts manage to change those subjects’ minds about high fructose corn syrup?  Well, actually, no – but then HFCS wasn’t the sweetener in question here. What they were asked to evaluate instead was stevia, the naturally sweet herb now used throughout the world, to which a number of health benefits have been attributed, but never any adverse side effects.

So why, exactly was stevia used to prove this point? “We looked at Stevia because we wished to examine food fears more generally than just HFCS, which for us was a case study,” was how Dr. Tal explained it in response to our query.

But who’s afraid of stevia? True, the FDA a number of years ago tried to brand it as an “unsafe food additive” following a “trade complaint” it received, reported to have come from the NutraSweet Company– but that was before it the food and beverage industry decided it might make a neat alternative sweetener. If consumer “food fears” include stevia, that’s news to us.

But, as we noted earlier, this wasn’t the usual type of study we’re used to seeing from great universities. It was more along the lines of a marketing survey – the kind usually done by public relations firms on behalf of clients in the food and beverage industry to address “perception” problems and recommend ways that consumers can be reassured that their concerns are groundless. Which is exactly what the Corn Refiners association has been attempting to do in regard to HFCS for the past several years.

And you have to admit that they really scored with this so-called “Cornell study,” if media attention can be viewed as a measure of success. But  maybe the reason it got so much attention is precisely because it wasn’t one of those boring and often difficult-to-fathom studies about the health effects of food additives performed by actual scientists and researchers – the kind that are seldom discussed in any detail by mainstream media, featured on shows like “Today,” or mentioned by health-care professionals.

Those are the kinds of studies that you‘re more apt to read about on the Internet.