Posted by Linda Bonvie
May 24, 2012
Do damage control, of course. But the PR response to a recent scientific study regarding fructose was a classic case of trying to ‘close the barn door after the horse runs away’. In other words, there was little the Corn Refiners Association could do to mitigate the message that had already gone out.
Last week’s headlines, preserved for posterity on the Internet, ran the gamut from big-name news organizations to publishing sites to individual bloggers. From an ABC News station’s “UCLA study finds high fructose corn syrup hurts memory, learning ability” to popular finance site Minyanville.com, “High Fructose Corn Syrup Can Make You Both Fat and Stupid,” the damage to an ingredient already under siege was irreversible.
The study at the center of the story, conducted by Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a well-respected professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, found that a diet high in fructose can slow down mental processes “hampering memory and learning,” or as Rodale.com put it, “make you stupid.”
The first press release issued by the UCLA media office said “The UCLA team zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive liquid six times sweeter than cane sugar, that is commonly added to processed foods, including soft drinks, condiments, applesauce and baby food.”
After being taken down for a time, the release was revised with “sugar” added before “high fructose corn syrup” and some of Dr. Gomez-Pinilla’s quotes altered as well. For example, one that originally stated “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup…” was changed to “We’re more concerned about the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup…”
After some new consumption figures for HFCS were also added, along with sugar totals, a notice was tacked onto the new version informing the reader that changes had been made to the original.
If at first you don’t succeed…..
Wondering why the press release had been revised after it was sent out into the media sphere, I called Elaine Schmidt at the UCLA press office.
Schmidt was quite upfront about what went on. “We got a call from a lobbyist from the Corn Growers Association (sic) who took issue with some of the things we said,” she told me.
David Knowles, the “lobbyist” to whom she referred, is actually the director of communications for the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the folks behind the “sugar is sugar” ads and the pending petition before the FDA to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar.”
Knowles didn’t just make one phone call, either. “He was calling multiple people on campus, and he made such a pest of himself that we made the changes,” Schmidt said.
The CRA’s Knowles also sent numerous emails with links, tables and charts, including, Schmidt told me, a number of links to the website Sweet Surprise, “so we just sort of ignored those. He was very specific about sending selective links.”
One of the emails Knowles sent, Schmidt noted, included charts “published by the USDA” that Dr. Gomez-Pinilla started looking at. “Facts are his expertise, and he started going through them and then found another chart that completely contradicted what the lobbyist said,” Schmidt told me. “I think people can use charts and statistics as they wish, but you have to look at them within context,” she added.
On their ‘home turf’ at corn.org, the Corn Refiners Association made a point of the fact that the UCLA press release had been “corrected,” and gave their own quotes on the situation for any reporters who might happen to find their site.
One quote at the corn page by John S. White, Ph. D., who is said to be a “sweetener expert” and president of his own research company, but more often than not is speaking on behalf of the CRA, says that to compute with the study, “a consumer would have to eat 66 apples or drink 51 cans of soda per day…”
I asked Dr. Gomez-Pinilla what he thought about that statement and he told me in an email that while he had not personally seen White’s comment, “the numbers seem exaggerated,” adding “…a practical analogy of our results with humans would be someone whose main source of drinking fluid during the day is from sodas.”
Meanwhile, back at UCLA, Knowles, apparently, was still trying for more revisions. “He did contact the campus media office, where they put our press releases online, and was trying to badger them to change some more, and they just said ‘this is it,’” Schmidt told me, “So I think he stopped calling.”
“He (Knowles) kept trying to bring it back to sugar,” Schmidt added, “and we said the study is focused on fructose. He was trying to split hairs about the language.”
“I think that’s just his job, and he was very effective at pummeling our campus editor, who did what he had to do to get him off his back,” Schmidt said.
So, yes, the CRA’s badgering did succeed in getting some perfunctory changes made in the offending press release. But for millions of consumers, there was no taking back what they have long suspected – that the presence of high fructose corn syrup in just about every product under the sun is, well, just plain “stupid.”