Hershey’s considers ditching HFCS – but media manage to muddle the story

Posted by
December 11, 2014

hershey

One of the Hershey’s products that contains HFCS

Sometimes, we can’t help feeling that consumers are, on the whole, better informed about issues affecting their health than some of the “expert sources” relied on by the media,

This past week, for example, various news organizations including the Associated Press, ABC News, and the Chicago Tribune trumpeted the news:  Hershey’s, the 120-year-old chocolate icon, announced its intention to review and reconsider its use of the industrial sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in its popular syrups and several other products.

The fact that Hershey’s may become the latest company – as well as one of the largest — to ditch HFCS and revert to actual sugar should have been a fairly easy story for a professional journalist to factually report.  But unfortunately the media missed the mark on key aspects of it.

The Associated Press story, which was used by other media, including ABC News and the Huffington Post, reflects how easily reporters can be misled. It began its coverage by quoting Will Papa, Hershey’s chief research and development officer, that the company is “moving more toward sugar” because “we take into account what consumers want. And consumers are telling us between the two, they prefer sugar.”

So far, so good. But then the industry spin machine immediately kicked in.

Instead of using the long-accepted way of presenting a news story involving anything controversial – that is, presenting pros and cons from various sources — the article quotes only those whose position is that HFCS in products is really not a problem. It then uses these one-sided opinions to claims that while many people say they avoid HFCS because it has gained a bad reputation for fueling weight gain and diabetes, “health experts says there’s not enough evidence to conclude it’s any worse than regular sugar.” (Here’s a pointer on reading such stories.  Whenever an article involving science says “not enough evidence,” that’s usually opinion rather than fact, and a good indicator you’re being misled.)

It then notes that the American Medical Association has maintained “there’s not enough evidence to specifically restrict the use of high-fructose corn syrup.” But restricting the use of HFCS was never the issue. The issue is that large amounts of HFCS—larger than the rules permit or the labels say—are routinely used by food companies and that a number of scientific studies have concluded this is hazardous to our health. It also fails to notes that “fructose” is the problem, as are the amounts of it used in HFCS. (When fructose is free and unbound, as it is in high fructose corn syrup, it goes directly to the liver, causing a number of potential health problems, according to many scientists.)

The article also notes that “The Center for Science in the Public Interest, has said that there’s no evidence that the sweetener is any worse nutritionally than sugar” – a statement that also overlooks significant scientific research and testimony to the contrary.  It is one thing for CSPI to be unconvinced by the evidence that exists.  It is quite another to write the negative evidence out of the equation altogether, which again misleads consumers (as well as companies reading this).

News or CRA propaganda?

But perhaps the worst aspect of the AP story was its extensive use of the Corn Refiners Association as a source, reflecting how the CRA takes every opportunity to mislead reporters on the subject. In fact, much of it reads like a press release put out by the CRA in response to the Hershey’s statements, with several paragraphs devoted to the corn refiners’ standard talking points, including quotes from CRA President Jack Bode and the results of a market research survey the group had commissioned purporting to show that two-thirds of consumers think “moderation” is more important than types of sweeteners.  (Of course, the fact that “moderation” is nearly impossible when it comes to the widespread use of HFCS was never brought up.)

Then there’s the Chicago Tribune, which repeats an all-too-common media misidentification of high fructose corn syrup in both its story and headline as simply “corn syrup,” a much older ingredient that contains no fructose, but which can also be found in Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup — a mistake that’s no doubt pleasing to the CRA, which has been trying for some time to drop “high fructose” from the name. ( In fact, we discussed this common misidentification in a blog back in February.  And while a Hershey’s spokesman specifically refers to “high fructose corn syrup” in the second paragraph, the story refers twice more to the wrong product, first noting that “the move … comes at a critical time for the makers of corn syrup, which have been facing more scrutiny from public health officials and nutrition experts and falling demand in the United States.”

At least the Tribune got that latter part right – even if it did show pictures of Hershey’s chocolate bars (which don’t contain any HFCS).

The point is that increasingly over the past decade, consumers have been actively avoiding products containing HFCS – and with good reasons for doing so.  This widespread and accelerating change in public perception has prompted a desperate last-ditch effort by the CRA to save its sinking sweetener – and seizing every opportunity to use the news media for that purpose is all part of the strategy. Reporters, who should know better, need to stop relying on trade groups such as the CRA as their primary sources of information.

Consumers already have – and in that sense, are a lot more savvy.