On the slim chance that you haven’t gotten your daily dose of corn from eating seemingly unrelated staples like bread, soda and yogurt, you've probably caught the latest TV ad campaign extolling the supposed virtues of a corn-derived artificial sweetener.
The new commercials, featuring everyday folks incredulous at being offered juice and desserts made with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), are an effort by the Corn Refiners Association to hit back against the bad rap the sweetener is getting. Books by Michael Pollan and documentaries such as "King Corn" argue that there's too much corn product in the American food supply hidden under names such as dextrose and crystalline fructose — and the trade group thinks we've gotten the wrong message.
"It's got high-fructose corn syrup in it — you know what they say about it!" one mom tells another when she's offered fruit punch in the ad. Another commercial features a guy hesitating to accept an HFCS-containing popsicle from his girlfriend.
The ads respond to a survey by the association that found two-thirds of consumers believe that HFCS is sweeter, more caloric and processed differently than sucrose, which is made from cane. "Mischaracterizations are causing alarm among consumers and we thought they should have fact-based information based on science," says Audrae Erickson, the association's president. "I think we've been fair in how we've presented the information in our ads and that we've been science-based."
Diet guru Marion Nestle agrees that the corn refiners "have a huge PR problem" among Americans. Fructose has been shown to be metabolized by the liver, where it's converted into obesity and heart disease-related triglycerides (fats), but as long as you're not over-eating, it isn't inherently more dangerous than sucrose (a combination of fructose and glucose), Nestle says. "It's becoming a poison," Nestle says of HFCS. "If we still had Communism to deal with, they'd think it was a communist plot."
But Nestle says the TV spots, which began airing last week as part of an 18-month blitz, are "condescending," particularly the woman correcting her boyfriend. "The trouble is, there's a grain of truth that something is wrong with corn syrup, and it’s a big grain," says Nestle, who blogs about the ad campaign here.
HFCS is in soft drinks, sauces, condiments, breads, yogurts and other foods — some 58 pounds of it a year available to each person feasting on the U.S. food supply, according to Agriculture Department statistics. Add that to the annual 62 pounds of sucrose in the food supply per capita, and one-third of a pound a day of our available diet is fructose and sucrose.
At most, we should get 10 percent of our calories from added sugars, Nestle says. But more than 10 percent of our daily diets comes from fructose alone, according to Emory University research.
"It's a sugar problem: There's too much sugar in the American diet," Nestle says. "If calories are balanced it’s a non-issue, but most people in America overeat, and having it around isn’t a good idea. Whether it's sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t think it makes a difference. But a big source of fructose is high-fructose corn syrup."
(Image from iStockphoto, Copyright: Sandra Caldwell)