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Selling Corn Syrup

2008 September 4
by Julie Clawson

It’s all about the spin. I remember back in the early 90’s when medical reports encouraged people to eat less red meat for their health we started seeing the “Beef. It’s What for Dinner” ads. PR to convince us to buy more stuff that isn’t good for us. Well as more people are realizing the dangers and ubiquitous nature of High Fructose Corn Syrup, the Corn Refiners Association has jumped into full PR spin mode. They recently launched a $30 million advertising campaign to convince consumers that HFCS is a natural compound like honey. (It’s made from corn so therefore it’s natural right?) Forget that it can only be made in industrial laboratories using numerous chemicals (including stuff like sulfuric acid), the FDA ruled earlier this summer that it can be labeled as “natural.” Hence the advertising campaign. Take a look at this recent commercial.

Playing on people’s fears and lack of information, the Corn Refiners have hit the sweet spot in labeling lingo. If it is “natural” then it must be good. But honestly even if we buy that “natural” claim, there are still numerous issues with this commercial. First substitute in another natural sweetener like sugar or honey into the dialogue and yes, as a mom I would be worried about feeding that to my child. Added sweeteners are unnecessary and unhealthy. They are a special treat, not just everyday afternoon snack fare. Who cares if HFCS is from corn and is just like sugar and honey – it is just like sugar and honey – full of empty calories and dangerous in large amounts.

The PR spin is necessary because we are consuming HFCS in crazy large amounts. It is in everything, its health issues hidden because it isn’t labeled as sugar. Corn is a veggie and most people might not know that HFCS is a sugar. If they bother to read the ingredients at all the impact of HFCS at the top of the list doesn’t hit them. And so obesity issues and diabetes continue to rise as the food that is easy to find and consume is stock full of high empty calories. And that doesn’t even account for the number of other health issues and allergies that are linked to HFCS.

Because HFCS is so popular (its in everything), most of the corn that is grown is very similar. We have lost the historic varieties of corn and the array of nutrients they provide. We now eat a very nutrient poor form of corn that not only sweetens most of our food but is the feed for the cows and chickens we consume. Our diet in essence is based strictly on corn. This is a health risk as we need a greater variety of nutrients to stay healthy. But it is also a societal risk to rely on one substance as our main food supply. If corn somehow faced a blight like potatoes did in Ireland, we would be facing a serious food crisis.

But even beyond the health risks, by supporting the use of HFCS one is supporting a seriously broken economic system. Our market is flooded with corn. It is a highly subsidized commodity. Farmers must grow ever increasing amounts of corn that are sold at low prices. Without the government subsidies most farmers would make no profit on their corn at all. But the more corn one grows the more subsidies one receives. So farmers must turn to genetically modified corn that is copyrighted (meaning they must buy new seed each year). They must use vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides (some which are built into the genetic structure of the corn itself). These chemicals not only destroy the ecosystem and poison water supplies, but they are oil based. To grow this corn we are expending large amounts of oil, an ever dwindling resource in our world.

In addition the US reliance on corn to insert into all of our food has encouraged more farmers to grow the corn. Since the government subsidizes it (and not other varieties of veggies), it is a way for farmers to actually make a living as a farmer. But only US farmers. There is a huge surplus of US grown subsidized corn that continues to flood the world market. Other countries cannot compete. World organizations have declared the subsiding of food on the trade market illegal, but the US continues to subsidize. Good for our multimillion dollar agribusinesses, bad for family farmers around the world. Counties like Brazil are seeking to sue the US for illegal trade practices, but one doubts the affect such suits will have.

So as one soccer mom embarrasses another mom for her lack of knowledge and encourages her to feed HFCS to her kids, there is a lot more at stake than just a pseudo-natural product. The Garden of Eden parallels in the commercial are frightening. But I guess that’s just good marketing – getting us to not just desire, but eat the forbidden fruit. And we just play along…


18 Responses leave one →
  1. Shelley Pagitt permalink
    September 4, 2008

    Julie, this is a great observation and overview of what has been in the works for decades. I am fearful for our society if we continue to swallow the BS that the media, corporations and agencies are shoveling into vulnerable mouths.
    I believe that sharing the most comprehensive story/history on complex topics will empower change for future generations.

  2. September 4, 2008

    Personally, I’m a little weirded out that the “wrong” mom once played a demon on Buffy.

  3. September 4, 2008

    It’s interesting how labeling something “natural” can make it automatically OK. Cyanide is found “naturally” in apple seeds. Doesn’t make me want to eat them in mass quantities. I think the industrial food industry sets out quite deliberately to confuse us about what’s healthy and “good for you.” I’ll stick to the rule of thumb that the further off the grid the food was produced and sold, the better. (Which isn’t to say there isn’t quite a bit of HFCS lurking in my pantry!)

  4. September 4, 2008

    interesting. and disturbing.

    thanks for posting.

  5. September 4, 2008

    The corn industry is a crazy one. I think that whenever we start reducing/eliminating processed foods we are better off. Have you heard the link between cows eating corn and the dangerous strains of e coli that the diet created? Cows were never meant to eat mostly corn, and feeding them corn instead of grass changed the ph in their stomachs which allowed e coli to mutate and change into the deadly forms that eventually find their way into our meat through bad processing.

    (But doesn’t honey have health properties and vitamins?)

  6. September 4, 2008

    I’ve seen that ad … and laughed at the audacity of it. What a crock of putrid excrement the corn producers are trying to sell us.

    The first problem is that HFCS is not a problem if it were all by itself. But it’s not. It’s never a lone sweetener. It’s almost always used in addition to sugar, and several other sweeteners.

    It’s also become ubitquitous. You cannot purchase processed food without it. Just try purchasing food without corn or soy in them. It’s almost impossible. I don’t have the book in front of me to quote from, but in Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan quoted that approximately 50 years ago farmers in Iowa grew something like 75 distinctly different crops. Now they just grow two, corn and soy. It’s damaging our soil and macro-environment.

  7. September 5, 2008

    ha ha ha…. THAT was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about…. :)I couldn’t believe it when I first saw those commercials. sigh.

  8. September 5, 2008

    So what’s the answer Julie? Nix the subsidies, okay I agree with that… and it would help. But in the end, if people want to eat slop, someone is going to grow it. I can’t see forcing people to eat better, or banning anyone from advertising their product.

    There is a large and growing market for decent food. People who care about their health, their quality of life, and their taste-buds demand it.

    More interesting about the commercial I think was the twist on racial stereotypes. The ditzy white girl must shop at whole foods, b/c it’s just better… the message is, who is she to tell the black woman what she should and should not feed her kids? Especially with such a condescending attitude.

  9. September 5, 2008

    We eat slop not because we “want” to, but because it’s cheap. It’s cheap because of subsidies. No one goes out and says “I want to get me some high fructose corn syrup.” We don’t have to “force” people to eat better or ban anything. We just have to stop subsidizing junk food. When the price of junk food accurately reflects what it actually costs, we’ll eat less of it. It’s one of the positive aspects of capitalism.

  10. Karl permalink
    September 5, 2008

    I think that’s only partly true Mike.

    Rice and beans is also cheap, and makes a much healthier meal than corn based junk food. In most places in the US, tap water is free and safe to drink and is a lot better for you than a Coke. But a lot more lower income people drink soft drinks and eat corn based junk food, than eat rice and beans and drink water.

    When I was in grad school my wife and I were technically below the poverty line but we were able to eat pretty healthily, by eating the cheaper stuff on the “still nutrituous” menu. But the vast majority of people shopping with us at the grocery store in the low income area where we lived were buying very different products than us, and actually spending more in many cases.

  11. September 5, 2008

    Maybe this is naive sentiment…but don’t these folks have a conscience? Deep down they must understand the immorality of causing harm for cash. That really is the bottom line, isn’t it? When did those who produce the crap, those who subsidize it, and those who market it check their morality in?


  12. September 5, 2008

    “those folks”? Those folks are farmers who have to feed their families too. It’s become an absolutely vicious circle where the farmers cannot get a reasonable price for their crops without subsidies, so the farmers plant corn (or soy). The corn is grown and distributed amongst the manufacturers of what we now call “food.” The food-like substance is sold the grocery stores. Poor people are given subsidies (in the form of coupons and/or food stamps) to purchase the food-like substance and told that the food-like substance is more nutritious because it has vitamins and minerals added. Or they don’t. They just purchase it to make their kids stop whining. Who knows. But watch television, buy a couple of magazines. Just hang out in a grocery store for a while. Watch how lower and middle class people shop. Then read “Eaters Manifesto,” by Michael Pollan.

  13. September 7, 2008

    Unfortunately most corporations are only focused on the bottom line, not on the potential harm or damage their product can cause. More and more it’s up to the consumer to research what they are putting into their bodies. As another blogger said, there are many things in nature that can kill.

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  14. September 10, 2008

    Thrilled to find your blog and well thought out assessment…At Shaping Youth we deal with media and marketing’s impact on kids and as I wrote in this post, “HFCS Corn Wars: A Surprise That’s Far From Sweet” I find it particularly irksome that no one is riled about the media buy targeting tweenagers on ‘ABC Family’ for example, who have not yet developed the critical thinking skills to assess the mythbusting magic of spinmeisters and industry hype. sigh.

    This is the most blatant targeting of a vulnerable market I’ve deconstructed in awhile, but tactics like this are pervasive. (see our category on childhood obesity, advergaming, and body image)

    I’m doing a follow up today with our health correspondent, so will link back to this post for the civil commentary alone…well done all! Many thanks, Amy Jussel

    Founder/Executive Director

  15. September 30, 2008

    Hi, found your blog thru Eugene Cho’s…

    Also, HFCS just doesn’t taste as good! Trying real maple syrup (vs. the HFCS version) and peanut butter and ketchup made with sugar (both available at Trader Joes), solely based on taste I could never go back…

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