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The Corn Refiners Association Sends Me a Letter

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Earlier this week, after posting a “Saturday Night Live” skit that parodied the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup commercials (in which HFCS is presented as “basically equal to sugar” and “fine in moderation”), I was contacted on Twitter by Therese Pompa, the social media manager for the Corn Refiners Association. She sent links that, according to her, refuted my position that HFCS appears to be dangerous to our health and a contributor to America’s health crisis. I asked if she thought it was not disingenuous to have HFCS in salty foods, creating a wider reach for sugar that is essentially hidden in food. Our Twitter conversation is posted here. After the representative asked to speak more in-depth offline, I received this email:

Jane,

Thank you for being open to a dialogue!  You are exactly correct when you say that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has an “image problem;” unfortunately, HFCS has been unfairly demonized.  You stated in your tweet that you were wondering when “Big Corn” would respond, but please remember that “Big Corn” is made up of individuals, just like me and you.  I am writing to you as an individual, as a mom, and yes as an employee of the Corn Refiners Association.

After doing research before I started here I found that there were many misconceptions, and if I can be frank, a lot of those who are missing the bigger picture.  I see your website as one that is trying to get the bigger picture message out to those who want to lead a healthier lifestyle.

We started our campaign to clear up misinformation as you note, and to also address concerns.   We know that there is a need for all of us to moderate all sugars and I commend you for talking about moderation on your site. We provide resources on this at our blog and have guest RD guest blog posts that speak to nutrition, eating a balanced meal, and dietary guidelines, as we want to get the message out there about the bigger picture as well.  I get that you are about clarity (reading labels), cooking your own meals, and education.

I am sure that we can agree that to a certain point we all have to be personally responsible, and to that point, sugars are not hidden, in fact they are clearly listed on the ingredient label,  and the name corn sugar would provide even more clarity, as someone would not have to remember all of the different types of sugars ( http://blog.sweetsurprise.com/sweetresources/), they would just know that this is another type of sugar that should also be moderated.  Yes, there has been a heightened awareness of sugars in general and there are more and more people reading labels, which is completely fine, but most of these foods that are sweetened now have always been sweetened with some type of sugar.

You are not alone in your thought process, there is this widely held view that HFCS is in everything – unnecessarily.  And that many of these foods/beverages never used to contain a sweetener until HFCS came along.  In fact, almost all of the products that now contain HFCS used to contain another caloric sweetener (primarily sugar).  And many more products still only contain sugar, in fact USDA data shows that per capita consumption of sugar has always exceeded the per capita consumption of high fructose corn syrup with sugar maintaining its position as the most widely consumed fructose-containing sweetener in the U.S. food supply.  Moreover, the form of HFCS used in many of these foods (HFCS-42) is less sweet than sugar and contains less fructose.

High fructose is not just preferred over sugar for cost reason, there are functional reasons such as some of the reasons you mention in your post.  There are also many healthy foods that are made with caloric sweeteners, and HFCS plays a role that has little to do with sweetening in these foods.   HFCS also improves flavor by reducing the harsh vinegar or acid bite in certain foods while enhancing fruit and spice flavors.

As you may know, to remove sweeteners entirely from their commonly used applications would drastically alter product flavor, require the use of chemical preservatives to ensure product quality and freshness, result in a reduction in perceived food quality (bran cereal with the caloric sweeteners removed would have the consistency of sawdust), and would likely require the addition of bulking agents to provide the expected texture, mouth feel or volume for most baked goods.

You may be interested to know that the American Heart Association recently acknowledged the role of sweeteners in a healthy diet noting, “In fact, when sugars are added to otherwise nutrient-rich foods, such as sugar-sweetened dairy products like flavored milk and yogurt and sugar-sweetened cereals, the quality of children’s and adolescents’ diets improves, and in the case of flavored milks, no adverse effects on weight status were found.” (American Heart Association. 2009. Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health. Circulation 120:1011-1020. http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/120/11/1011)

What would you consider pure cane sugar?  HFCS, sugar, fruit juice concentrate, and agave nectar go through extremely similar production methods. We do have information on our website that shows the similarities of how sucrose (table sugar) and HFCS are processed.  You can see more on this at http://www.sweetsurprise.com/learning-center/hfcs-vs-sugar/manufacturing and http://www.sweetsurprise.com/myths-and-facts/faqs-high-fructose-corn-syrup/natural

You mention obesity and diabetes and how the rates are skyrocketing, but they are skyrocketing in other countries too – countries that are consuming sucrose (table sugar) and very little if any HFCS.  You can see supportive data on this at http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Sugar/data.htm (table 52).

Don’t you think the bottom line should be to reduce all sugars, or even more to reduce our overall portion sizes and to try to make healthy  lifestyle choices across the board.  When we focus on one ingredient, and vilify it beyond truth, then we lose sight of the bigger picture.  I like the view of Jo-Ann Heslin, M.A., R.D., C.D.N., who states, “High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sugar, nothing more, nothing less. If you choose not to eat it, I’m fine with that decision. But your decision should be made because you have decided to eat less sweetened foods and drinks, not because you believe HFCS is some dietary devil to be avoided at all costs.” HealthNewsDigest.com, July 20, 2008

I suspect you will place this on your site since you told your readers that you would be back with an update. And on that note I welcome the opportunity to talk more about your concerns and those of your readers.

I hope we can continue to have an open cordial dialogue.

Therese Pompa
Corn Refiners Association
Social Media Manager

And here is my response:

Dear Therese,

Thank you for your email, and I appreciate that you seem to have taken a look at my website and are not simply sending me a form letter.  However, I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree.

I used the term “Big Corn” because “big” is exactly the space it occupies on American dinner tables. Corn is no longer ‘on the cob’; thanks to massive government subsidies (that must be adjusted to support a greater and healthier variety of produce), corn has taken over every aspect of our food in the form of countless laboratory derivatives.  You speak of consumers being informed about all sugars and reducing all sugar intake.  You and I may both consider ourselves informed, but do you think the typical shopper knows that maltodextrin and diglycerides are corn derivatives?  Of course not, and I think the corn industry counts on that fact.  Corn and its derivatives also make food cheaper, and it is the proliferation of cheap processed food that is causing such a health crisis in this country.

I think your industry not only has to fight an image problem with high fructose corn syrup, but with corn itself.  Corn industry motives are simply not trusted.  Corn has been slipped into everything we eat under multiple pseudonyms, the well-funded marketing blitz to convince people that high fructose syrup is the same as sugar is simply too aggressive (and thus makes people question its veracity), and now one must ask, “If they say high fructose corn syrup is harmless, why the need to change the name to ‘corn sugar’?”  People don’t like to be taken for fools, and hiding corn under various names and going to such lengths to re-brand yourself feels as if you’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

On a personal note, I was surprised to find a quote supporting HFCS from renowned nutritionist Marion Nestle on your website.  You may have seen that I tweeted her about it, asking her to explain her support.  She said that quote should have been removed by now.  The fact that the Corn Refiners Association did not honor that request and in fact appears to be fabricating support simply undermines your company’s credibility.

Until the corn industry makes an effort to work on behalf of the common good, and not on behalf of processed food manufacturers; and acknowledge conflicting evidence, and move forward together discussing both sides, you will not have the public’s trust, especially in the midst of the current health crisis.

As I mentioned previously, even if the evidence is not air-tight over whether HFCS is damaging to one’s health, I feel there are enough indicators to nonetheless put it in question.  Both sides can go back and forth presenting “expert testimony” without end.  The argument is really moot until a definitive study emerges.

I appeciate that you sent me the links that support your opinion, but frankly I don’t trust anything that isn’t from a neutral source (and sending 60+ spreadsheets from the USDA in a link is not going to get your point across to a person you’re trying to convince; it’s like reading insurance forms).

I understand you have a job to do and I respect that.  But I will be avoiding high fructose corn syrup (and corn sugar) — and urging others to do so as well — until given reason to believe otherwise.

Thank you for taking the time to have this dialogue.

Sincerely,
Jane Bills

Read the next round of letters, plus reader questions and comments by clicking here.

Mar. 18 2011 |
  1. Sonya

    Wow – you go girl! Get into it!

  2. Kate

    Well said Jane.

  3. Lauren

    Work it! Awesome job!

  4. Zebe

    Jane Bills, you are a hero for the health consciousness of America. It’s people like you who will go down in history as the brave ones who questioned Big Corn. Unfortunately, American health (and especially America’s children’s health) is on a battlefield of a war that could so easily be ended. All Americans have to do is give up soft drinks, fast food, and eat more naturally. That’s all. The Big Corn Bogeyman would have to start making more fuel and employees change careers to health care workers–as much of the population is already getting sick.

    We don’t have to be slaves to fast food corporations and their addictive concoctions. We can free ourselves to live healthier, happier lives–without fast food, and certainly without high fructose corn syrup.

    Thank you again Jane Bills. I know some day the history books will thank you and thousands like you who have the courage to question the status quo—and lead others into change.

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