Few food issues have attracted as much recent attention as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). From the Corn Refiners Association to mommy bloggers, everyone seems to take a strong position on the issue, and the pendulum seems to be swinging away from high fructose corn syrup. New product activity across food and drink categories certainly suggests that Americans want to avoid HFCS en masse. However, recent consumer data from Mintel show a much more complex landscape.

No doubt, a sub-section of Americans feel strongly about avoiding HFCS. According to Mintel’s research, 35% of consumers will not purchase products that list HFCS as any ingredient, and 44% say they buy products that claim to be free HFCS instead of similar products that do contain it. For some Americans, even sugar substitutes have a stronger health halo than HFCS. Nearly 45% think sweeteners like Equal, Splenda and Sweet’N Low are healthier than HFCS.

However, those sentiments may not be altogether representative of the American public. A clear majority of Americans (64%) think HFCS is okay in moderation, and more than one-third actually have a flavor preference for products made with HFCS. Some 35% say foods/drinks sweetened with HFCS taste better than those sweetened with something else.

It is clear that all Americans are not created equal when it comes to high fructose corn syrup, and when it comes to certain demographic factors -- education, in particular -- those differences become even more exaggerated. For instance, nearly two-thirds of Americans with some graduate school or graduate degree say they avoid products that list HFCS as one of the first ingredients, but that number drops to 43% among consumers with a high school degree or less.

Education aside, nearly half of Americans (46%) say they really do not know enough about HFCS to know if it is good or bad for their health. However, when accounting for education level, a more polarized picture appears. Only 36% of Americans with some graduate school or graduate degree say the same thing, compared to 54% of those with a high school degree or less.

Despite fragmented public opinion, the food industry is clearly moving away from HFCS. Not surprisingly, natural-oriented brands including Kashi, Bear Naked and Stonyfield Farms clearly promote HFCS-free messages on their packages, but even traditional, iconic American brands are taking a stand against HFCS. Post Raisin Brand, Lorna Doone Shortbread, Hunt’s Ketchup, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars and Wish-Bone Dressing are among the products that have recently included “free from high fructose corn syrup” messages on their labels.

To be sure, there is as much contradiction in the HFCS issue as there is passion. Although viewed by many as a black-and-white issue, HFCS has emerged as a debate clouded in shades of gray.


From the November 1, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition