Want to be a savvier shopper? Listen in on the food industry

Posted by
December 15, 2011

Have you ever wanted to be the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’? Would you like to hear the chit chat that goes on behind closed doors and the scheming and planning to get us to think and act a certain way?

Well, you can, and you don’t need any fancy spy stuff or to do anything illegal. All you need is a computer and an Internet connection and you can learn more about the murky world of food labeling, manufacturing, and consumerism than you ever wanted to know. In fact, in our wired world, eavesdropping on the food industry has never been easier.

Reading food industry trade publications is often irritating, but well worth the aggravation. In fact, after just a few minutes of such ‘spying’, you’ll never be able to shop quite the same way again. Those pretty packages of processed whatevers just won’t have the same hypnotic effect on you.

In about 15 minutes at two online trade pubs, I learned that  “consumers have limited knowledge” when it comes to what ingredients we choose to avoid, that “clean labels” are a hot trend, that something called “lifestyle food brands” will be the new way our friends and neighbors judge us (“A person drinking a Mountain Dew is perceived differently than a person drinking a Naked Smoothie”) and that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) is pulling out all the stops in trying to regain customers for its beloved high fructose corn syrup.

Wanting to learn more about what elevates the social status of a Naked Smoothie juice drinker (interestingly, the Naked Juice Co. and Mountain Dew are both owned by PepsiCo) I soon found myself sidetracked by numerous blinking, flashing and eye-catching ads from the CRA.

One purple box at foodproductdesign.com apparently targeting food manufacturers who may be thinking of jumping on the consumer-popular “NO HFCS” bandwagon, advised readers to “get the facts before you act,” Clicking on the blinking box sent me to the CRA’s cornnaturally.com “tool kit resource library,” where “food and beverage professionals could” learn the “facts” about HFCS.

Perhaps most interesting on the page containing newletters, podcasts and webinars for “professionals” was the “answering consumer questions” tab that provides the kind of canned answers you get when trying to get information from customer service lines. Giving ready-made responses to questions such as “high fructose corn syrup isn’t natural, why are you still using it?” and “will eating high fructose corn syrup make me gain weight?” the page also makes a direct plea to food manufactures on the top: Before you consider reformulating your food and beverage products to contain table sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), take a look at what grocery store sales receipts are saying.

I rather think food manufacturers should be looking at what consumers are saying, but more on that in a moment.

Attracted to the “webinars” section, I checked out the “Worried about High Fructose Corn Syrup?” presentation and learned about the “consumer research findings” pie chart. Apparently we are all represented in the CRA pie (which probably contains HFCS), either as an “eater” who has no concerns and is “happy eating their chosen diet,” a “sugar worrier,” who doesn’t distinguish one sweetener from another, an “HFCS worrier” and an “HFCS hater.”

Included in the pie (and on other sections of this “professionals” page) are numerous statistics which change from page to page. If we add up the HFCS “worriers” and “haters,” the CRA figures are 18.1 percent, but on another page it claims that only 3 percent of consumers look for HFCS on food labels and 4 percent are avoiding it. Where the rest of the worriers and haters went is unknown.

What is known is that over 4,000 responses have come into the Food and Drug Administration on the Corn Refiners Association petition attempting to officially change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar,” and the vast majority of those consumers are card-carrying HFCS “haters.” In fact, I spent well over an hour mining through those comments and still have not come upon one that is in favor of this name switch. It sure sounds as though they represent a bigger slice of the pie than the CRA had hoped for.

Typical of some of the comments I saw from the FDA docket are these:

“Make no mistake – this is about the Corn Refiners bottom line. The more aware and informed consumers become about the dangers of HFCS, the more they will seek alternatives or avoid products containing HFCS altogether. This is already happening, and the Corn Refiners are feeling the pinch. Their petition is an effort to confuse consumers into buying products they are working diligently to avoid.”

“It seems quite obvious that the purpose of renaming this poison is to deceive the consumer. Your job is to protect the consumer. Need I say more?”

“Anyone with an honest heart and clear conscience knows this petition to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar is only to protect profits, not to educate or protect the health of consumers…It is the duty of our elected Government Officials to reject these covert attempts to deceive the consumers in the name of profit. There is a very old word to describe this very attempt: F R A U D.”

The ‘name game’ petition from the CRA is still active at the FDA, and you still have time to add your own voice to the issue by clicking here. The more responses that come in, the clearer the message to the FDA and industry that consumers have enough smarts to know when they are being fooled for the sake of profits.

Before I left progressivegrocer.com I signed up for a webcast called The Changing Ingredient Game: the Business Case for High Fructose Corn Syrup.  I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming blog – but for now, suffice it to say that after you do a little eavesdropping on what the food industry is saying about you, there are probably a lot of things you’ll never be able to swallow again.