“Contains NO HFCS!”

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Have you noticed that some grocery items are adding to their labels the words “Contains NO High Fructose Corn Syrup”? Big, bold lettering, splashed right across the front of the package. Lots of ALL CAPS, too! The manufacturers are proud of this, and they want you to notice.

Why?

Well, as someone who has spent many years in the world of food industry marketing, I can tell you this for certain: food companies conduct a lot of consumer research. This label addition is a response to what shoppers like you are telling them. We can assume the words “high fructose corn syrup” are a negative now to many people.

HFCS, as it’s popularly known, is a chemical sweetener that is found in many, many packaged products… everything from breakfast cereals to salad dressings, ice cream, many yogurts and canned goods. Because it’s made from corn – a “natural food” — its chief proponents (companies like Cargill that manufacture the stuff) will tell you that it is 100% safe to eat, unlike some other sweeteners. And that may well be true. The unknown, however, is the effect of consuming the amount of HFCS that most of us do – 42 pounds per person per year, according to Atlantic magazine. HFCS is an ingredient in just about every processed food product you can purchase.

Considering that HFCS has only been used in food production since the 1970’s, there are no long-term studies that verify that it is safe to consume, let alone in this quantity. It was when beverage manufacturers started using it in soda in 1984 that its popularity really took off. A look at the parallel rise in obesity rates in this country during the same time period that HFCS became so entrenched in our diets should give us all pause. Coincidence?

The corn lobby is fighting hard to maintain the use of HFCS. Recognizing that they have a public relations image problem on their hands, corn refiners are even petitioning the FDA to change the name of the product to “corn sugar.” That sounds so much more palatable than high fructose corn syrup, doesn’t it?

But even if HFCS is not really a bad thing to eat, it’s definitely not a good thing. In researching my 2009 book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, I learned that, if nothing else, HFCS is sweet and makes products that it is added to taste unnaturally so. Looks like consumers are beginning to realize that, and are asking for options in some packaged products. And the food industry’s receptivity to this consumer concern is very good news.

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