Emails reveal industry qualms over pitching HFCS as ‘natural’

Posted by
February 4, 2014



Maybe it should be called “CornSugarGate.”

And like most such affairs, the emails offer our best insight into what’s really happening behind the curtain.  (Back in the old days, of course, it used to be written memos, but the principle is the same — someone writes a note to someone else involved in a plan to engage in some questionable activity, and it eventually becomes public, whether months or years later.)

In this case, the emails involved pertain to a plan by the Corn Refiners Association to convince the public that high fructose corn syrup, the laboratory sweetener still used in numerous processed foods, was a “natural” equivalent of sugar — in fact, a form of sugar.  And what they indicate is that not everyone in the industry was convinced that promoting this proposition would be a particularly wise course of action.

In fact, the missives that flew through cyberspace — among a half-million pages of material recently made public in connection with litigation and counter-litigation over the CRA’s ensuing “Sweet Surprise” campaign — sound as though at least one major player thought it would be a really, really bad idea.

Back in February, 2010, Archer Daniels-Midland spokesman David Weintraub, maintained in a “confidential” message under the subject line “Marketing Ploy” that “I think we’re unnecessarily asking for trouble by using the ‘natural’ language,” adding, “I don’t think we really gain much in the mind of the audience or customers and I think it provides a point to ridicule the ads and the industry comes off as being disingenuous.”

Continuing to express skepticism in a subsequent email, Weintraub referred to an ongoing attempt to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar” — a change that was ultimately rejected by the Food and Drug Administration — as “dishonest and sneaky.”

‘Corn Con Confidential’?

In another interesting revelation, ex-CRA President Audrae Erickson, while defending the proposed promotion in a 2009 email, urged that “(CRA) sponsorship of this campaign remain confidential.” In other words, get the message out there, but hide the identity of the messenger — which, as I noted in a recent blog, is usually what folks in the public relations business do.

Of course, the CRA ‘s role in this effort is now anything but secret — in fact, it’s the “us” on the website. But I can’t help wondering — just who did she have in mind as the “sponsor” of such a campaign, as far as the public was concerned — some “grass-roots organization whose identity was as contrived as the name “corn sugar,” perhaps? (Hey — political organizations disguise themselves all the time under folksy-type aliases.)

Such inside information, in any event, was disclosed late last month by NBC News Investigations, casting a long-overdue media spotlight on the making of the strategy behind the corn refiners’ attempts to (literally) sugar-coat a product that experts and a number of studies have linked to obesity, diabetes, fatty liver syndrome and cognitive problems, among others.

Also reported by NBC was the response of Stephen D’Amore, an attorney representing the HFCS manufacturers. “What the emails clearly show,” he’s quoted as saying, “is the corn refiners engaged in a rigorous internal discussion about the public relations aspects of what HFCS is called, while never wavering in their core belief that high fructose corn syrup is both natural and nutritionally equivalent to sugar.”

Well, perhaps they’re all true believers — even Weintraub, who is quoted as saying the “claim is true,” but shouldn’t be hyped to the public. As Upton Sinclair, whose landmark novel The Jungle helped spur the creation of the FDA, once famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

But, thankfully, we the consumers don’t have to share in their sentiments — particularly when our health and that of our families might well depend on our understanding the difference between fact and fabrication.