Another university study on ‘food fears’ appears – funded by guess who?

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September 25, 2014



The Corn Refiners Association has once again turned to academia to provide its increasingly beleaguered but still highly profitable product, high fructose corn syrup, with a new cloak of scholarly respectability.

The lobbying group, representing major HFCS manufacturers, has seen fit to fund yet another university “study” – this one designed to show just how unfounded all those “food fears” that seem to be resulting in HFCS being dropped as an ingredient in various products really are.

Only this time, the people it hopes to educate are food company executives who might be under the impression that consumers would rather not have this cheap laboratory sweetener, which scientific research from other universities has linked to such health problems as obesity, diabetes and pancreatic cancer, in the processed food and beverages they purchase.

Does that business about “food fears” related to HFCS sound a bit familiar? If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, it should.

Back in July, we reported on how Professor Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell University’s “Applied Economics and Management Department” with a Ph.D. in food psychology and consumer behavior, had produced a 40-page CRA-funded paper on “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.” Despite the fact that this “study” consisted strictly of marketing rather than scientific research, it received quite a bit of publicity, not only in the form of newspaper headlines but on the Today Show.

Perhaps encouraged by all that media hype, and with HFCS getting an increasingly bad rap from real researchers and dropped as an ingredient in more and more products, the CRA seems to be turning the approach of forming alliances with paid academic mercenaries into a strategy.

The result of its latest such partnership is what’s being called a “technical/white paper” entitled “Battle of the Buzz: Food Fears vs. Fact in the Digital Age,” prepared by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and” supported by a grant from the Corn Refiners Association.”

After examining some120 news outlets covering scientific research on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from 2004 to 2013, what the authors of this paper concluded is that news outlets may be misleading consumers by failing to present a balanced “review of science.”

To support that notion, the CMPA has summarized 11 examples of “research, presentations and articles” that have been either been published in scientific or medical journals or delivered before various professional groups, along with their “HFCS sentiment.” It identified six as “negative” toward the sweetener while five were “positive.” And to further show how “unbalanced” the coverage has been, the paper includes a chart showing how the media had utterly failed to be influenced by a 2012 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) conclusion that HFCS and sucrose are equal in their metabolic effects – in fact, actually “arguing against their findings.” (Not mentioned, of course is the fact that AND is an organization largely aligned with and funded by the food industry.)

Dr. Lichter lectures the media

Also prominently featured (in capital letters) is a quote from the CMPA’s president and cofounder, S. Robert Lichter: “The media still hasn’t gotten the messages from scientists that HFCS is essentially no different from any other nutritive sweetener. Overall, the coverage placed news values above scientific values.”

Now, you might wonder, is Dr. Lichter a scientist himself? Well, that depends on how you regard a “political scientist.” According to, he’s a paid contributor to the Fox News Channel who in the mid-1980s held the DeWitt Wallace Chair in Mass Communication at the American Enterprise Institute, which is described as “an extremely influential, pro-business think tank.”

So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that this “white paper” partly consist of a rehash of the Cornell marketing survey by Dr. Wansink. Or that it’s “key insights” include claims that consumers are being influenced by “false controversy” to “say they avoid specific food ingredients.” And that such “reported ingredient avoidance influences food and beverage manufacturers to make unnecessary changes to formulations and marketing strategies.”

It’s that last “key insight,” in fact, that is really the point of this whole supposed “study” – the message that both the CMPA  and its sponsor, the CRA, hope to get across to food manufacturers that there’s really no need to go changing any more of those “formulations” to exclude the high fructose corn syrup that they now contain.

It’s just fortunate that in reality, industry doesn’t determine what constitutes a “balanced view of science” (if such a thing even exists) – and that increasing numbers of consumers are coming to understand that some “food fears” are justified, and that their purchasing power is what ultimately determines how products are formulated.

And that they’re not nearly as gullible or misinformed as bought-and-paid for pseudo-scholars are trying to make them out to be