Is ‘less’ HFCS in products always a good thing? Not necessarily

Posted by
December 10, 2013

When Chick-fil-A announced last week that it would be removing high fructose corn syrup from its sandwich buns and dressings, it obviously wasn’t listening to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA).

Who they were listening to was an increasingly irate group of consumers led by popular food blogger Vani Hari, who posted an article two years ago at her site, FoodBabe.com, called “Chick-fil-A or Chemical-fil-A?”

As Hari pointed out in the blog, the Chick-fil-A sandwich has a lot of  ingredients, almost 100, most of which, she says, have “serious health consequences.” But out of that long list that includes monosodium glutamate, artificial flavorings and preservatives, the company chose to boot HFCS, something the CRA has been working hard to prevent.

Repackaging the hype

Big Corn has been traveling a long and lonely road since the FDA’s rejection last year of it big plan to sweeten up the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”  Dumping its consumer campaign, the trade group set about redirecting its HFCS pitch to a new target audience, the food industry.

And the CRA’s message to food and beverage manufacturers, grocery stores and chain restaurants is that consumers just don’t care about HFCS anymore, and that no one (with the exception of the CRA, of course) is really talking about it these days.

But industry is talking about HFCS – not how to use more of it, but how to reduce what’s currently being used in products.  And to do that, it has had to employ some high tech concoctions that don’t have any taste of their own, but rather trick our brains into thinking we’re eating or drinking something that is, well, not really there.

I first told you about these ‘tongue-tampering’ ingredients last year and about the leader in the imaginary flavor world – Senomyx, a San Diego-based biotech company that has some close, big-buck ties to the soft drink industry, especially PepsiCo.

Imagining less HFCS

On the brink of regulatory approval in the U.S. is Senomyx’s sweet taste modifier “S617,” designed in the laboratory to trick the brain into thinking a soda with less HFCS still tastes just as sweet as before.

Senomyx CEO Kent Snyder was quoted in a trade pub earlier this year as saying that “(r)educing HFCS in these products…would be welcome by consumers and manufacturers.”

Or would it?

Since S617 is a top secret, proprietary, patented “discovery,” no one, food manufacturer or consumer alike, will be able to find out exactly what it is. Likely to be listed on ingredient labels under “flavoring,” the only thing you can uncover about it is that Senomyx scientists have “successfully cloned human taste receptors,” and that these flavor modifiers “bind to those receptors…to trigger a strong taste sensation.”

In a recent Advertising Age story about S617, Michael Jacobson, executive director of Science in the Public Interest, was quoted as saying that “if they cut the ‘sugar’ in half with this stuff, that’s huge,” and that one reason it could be considered ‘safe’ is because it would be used at such low levels.

Since Jacobson likely knows no more about what S617 actually is than the rest of us, I’d hardly call that “science.”
A much more logical statement on S617 comes from the Feingold Association of the United States. The group, a non-profit founded in 1976 by pediatrician Benjamin Feingold, that educates how diet can affect mood and behavior – especially for kids – has this to say about S617:

…when a chemical has a profound effect on how the body works (in this case, on how the taste buds work), it is considered a drug. A drug must undergo stringent regulations and testing, including discovery of side effects and interactions with drugs, for FDA approval – far beyond anything required for approval of a ‘favoring.’

We wish somebody, somewhere, would study the question of when does a flavoring become a drug?

Good question – but one that’s unlikely to be answered anytime soon, if at all. Meanwhile, S617 will likely hit the marketplace next year – yet another questionable ingredient being added to the witches brew of additives in so many products, this one for the purpose of reducing another that’s already known to be bad. A better idea seems to be to just get rid of the HFCS altogether — what Chich-fil-A is now doing in many of its menu items.