A parent at a child's birthday questions why the host mother is serving a beverage with high-fructose corn syrup.
“You don't care what the kids eat, huh?” the parent says, sarcastically.
The host mom responds that she's confident in her choice because HFCS is made from corn, natural and, like sugar, fine in moderation.
This exchange is shown in a television ad that's part of a multimedia campaign from the Corn Refiners Association, Washington, aimed at changing the perception of HFCS, a corn starch-based sweetener that has replaced sugar in many beverages, cereals, breads and other processed foods.
The ad campaign is an effort to counter the backlash against HFCS, which critics say is worse than regular sugar because it's processed. They also say it encourages overconsumption of sugars because it's cheaper than sugar, resulting in lower prices of products that contain HFCS.
About 44.3% of grocery shoppers indicate they have heard or read about food products marketed as free of high-fructose corn syrup, according to a CRA-sponsored study, conducted last year.
Indeed, the HFCS-free trend is catching on. Log Cabin Syrup, for instance, has replaced HFCS with natural sugar, and PepsiCo last year introduced Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback for a limited time. Both products use natural sugar rather than HFCS.
Efforts to position HFCS as unhealthy are “a form of marketing gimmickry that will force consumers to pay more at checkout,” CRA President Audrae Erickson told SN.
A CRA print ad states that HFCS is nutritionally the same as table sugar. “High Fructose Corn Syrup Made Me Fat,” the copy reads. “No, going back for thirds made you fat,” it continues.
“Consumers are learning that a calorie is a calorie and a sugar is a sugar,” Erickson said. “They're equally caloric and handled by the body in the same way.”
The Washington-based Sugar Association, in turn, said claims that HFCS is “nutritionally equal” to sugar are false and misleading. While sugar is all-natural, HFCS does not exist in nature and is highly processed, according to the Sugar Association.
The controversy has left consumers unsure what do to. Because of this, many are asking their supermarket registered dietitians for help.
Barbara Ruhs, Chandler, Ariz., Bashas' registered dietitian, said HFCS serves a purpose because it helps keeps food and beverage prices lower.
But she's concerned that it's increasingly becoming overused.
“It's getting out of control — it's an ingredient in almost everything,” she said.
Along with its primary use in beverages, HFCS can be found in many other products. Since it retains moisture and keeps ingredients evenly mixed, it's used in products like bran cereal and yogurt. It also enhances spice flavorings, so it's also used in sauces and marinades.
Ruhs recommends that people consume it in moderation or, if concerned about it, switch to products without it.
At Hy-Vee's Fleur Drive location in Des Moines, Iowa, store dietitian Anne Cundiff gets occasional questions about HFCS.
She can see why it's used in sports drinks and other beverages. But she recommends that shoppers look for another brand if they see HFCS in the ingredient list of foods like breads and cereals.
“It doesn't have a place in those kind of products,” she said.