It might sound corny, but claims of ‘no HFCS’ hurt corn growers’ feelings

Posted by
April 12, 2012

Some TruMoo with lunch served at a school participating in the National School Lunch Program. Photo Bob Nichols, USDA

While growing numbers of shoppers are quite happy to see “no high fructose corn syrup” on an increasing number of food product labels these days, there are some who are reportedly dismayed and disappointed over so many companies making a point of jumping off the high fructose corn syrup bandwagon and embracing natural sugar once again.

If you’re guessing these are folks who are involved in corn production, you’re right. It seems that label statements and commercials, particularly from two companies, that highlight the absence of this controversial sweetener are “offensive to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. consumers that grow corn,” according to S. Richard Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, a federation of state associations representing corn farmers in the U.S.

Especially “offensive” to Tolman and the farmers’ he represents is the advertising campaign from Dean Foods for its TruMoo brand chocolate milk.

“The TruMoo ad,” Tolman said, “the way it’s done, it singles out HFCS as if it’s a good thing that it’s not in there…so it’s the prominence of the ad, especially when they use HFCS in other products.”

In the TruMoo commercial, a mom shopping with her son is guided through her chocolate milk purchase by a mini milkman in white who says “it’s good for him, you betcha,” pointing out it contains vitamins A and D and no high fructose corn syrup “with just enough natural sugar for a wholesome, everyday treat.”

Sending emails to both Welch and Dean Foods (and posting them at the group’s web site) at the end of March, Tolman said “A growing number of our members have reached out to us expressing great concern and disappointment over the references to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in your advertising campaign… The innuendo and implications from your commercial are very negative for HFCS.”

The Tolman email, sounding more like a letter from an attorney, went on to say, “…we find the negative focus on HFCS troubling and out of character. We ask that you cease the references to HFCS. There are many positive things about your products to focus upon without focusing on a perceived negative.”

While Welch’s didn’t appear to reply, Tolman did get a response from Dean Foods in regard to TruMoo, which was reformulated using natural sugar in August of 2011.

But that too, left Tolman “disappointed.”

While he had no “issue with (the company’s) statement that consumers have expressed their desire to purchase flavored milks with sugars rather than HFCS as the sweetener,” as “that certainly may be true,” it was his belief that part of the “misperception” that drives consumers to shun HFCS is being perpetuated in the TruMoo advertising.

Dean Foods, however, doesn’t see it as anything more than giving consumers what they want and then letting them know about it. The company also doesn’t have any intentions of changing its label to soothe the feelings of all those corn growers.

“TruMoo chocolate milk was reformulated to address what we viewed as a very strong preference among parents and schools for a chocolate milk that was lower in fat and calories and also contained sucrose (natural sugar) instead of high fructose corn syrup,” Liliana Esposito, VP of public affairs at Dean Foods told me.

Esposito said she “understands their need to serve their members,” adding, “we are just communicating about the positive attributes of our products. Consumers were desiring a product that is sweetened with sucrose, and that is what we provided, and we want to make sure consumers know that. This is how we communicate to them.”

But while farmers’, according to Tolman, are “very sensitive about people’s attitude about food,” he admitted that should HFCS disappear tomorrow, the economic effect on U.S. family farms that grow corn would not be of any great concern.  That’s because the corn that is actually used for this test-tube sweetener represents just a little blip in the market for their crop.

“It’s actually a fairly minor end use for farmers…under four percent in 2010,” he said, adding, “and I suspect in 2011 it was even less as the amount (of corn) going into HFCS is flat and declining.”

Is this what’s “next,” a witches’ brew of sweeteners?

Recently hitting the national market is Pepsi Next, advertised as “real cola taste” with “60 percent less sugar.” Starting off with high fructose corn syrup and finishing with aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose, Pepsi Next has managed to combine most, if not all, of the top controversial sweeteners into one beverage!

Meanwhile, it’s been reported that Pepsi Throwback, using natural sugar instead of HFCS, was upgraded to be a permanent part of the Pepsi lineup last year due to consumer demand.

While many Pepsi Next facebook “fans” are waxing nostalgic over the various Pepsi products of the past, others have been expressing their contempt for the odd combination of sweeteners. “What’s wrong with real sugar, come on Pepsi,” says one, while others are blasting the company for its “sneaky” use of aspartame.

“Only took one taste for me to realize it has artificial sweetener in it,” says another, adding the aspartame was a “petty attempt to trick me. Put ‘artificial’ in your ad, Pepsi.”

Curious about the possibility that Pepsi Next might contain HFCS 90 (high fructose corn syrup with 90 percent fructose, said to be the “ideal choice” for reduced calorie foods by a major manufacturer of HFCS), I called the PepsiCo press office, but have not yet  received a response. I’ll keep you posted.