Tuesday, September 14, 2010

While we battle over ingredients like HFCS, Big Food is winning the processed food war

If there was Twitter for food only, today's trending topic would have been the Big News that the Corn Refiners Association (yes, there are lobbyists for people who refine corn) is asking the Food and Drug Administration to rename high-fructose corn syrup (aka HFCS) "corn sugar." This, the latest in the corn industry's attempts to restore the tarnished reputation of its omnipresent by-product. Tara Parker-Pope, health blogger for the New York Times, quotes Audrae Erickson, president of CRA, who explains:
Clearly the name is confusing consumers. Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.
Clearly the name is confusing? That must explain the PR campaign the corn refiners embarked on not long ago (cutely dubbed "sweet surprise") to un-confuse consumers. But now, focus group results in hand, industry is doing what they do even better than PR: lobby the federal government to get its way.

But as Food Politics author Marion Nestle succinctly points out, "HFCS is the new trans fat." In other words, the public, driven by an ingredient-obsessed approach to healthy eating has latched on to HFCS as the black sheep de jure. I don't even want to get into the debate over whether or not HFCS has caused the obesity epidemic (Professor Nestle says no and I believe her). To me, that has always been besides the point.

The reason that HFCS became so ubiquitous in the food supply, the reason it replaced sugar decades ago, is that it was cheaper, thanks to federal corn subsidies. This in turn helped drive super-sizing, especially of soda, as other authors have eloquently written about. But unfortunately, this message got lost in the shuffle as most of the media's emphasis has been on the nutritional aspects of HFCS.

So now, the public has decided that HFCS is simply the wrong sweetener. As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better. Exhibit A, Pepsi Natural:
Pepsi Natural is made with all-natural ingredients, including lightly sparkling water, natural sugar, natural caramel and kola nut extract.
Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It's like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

PepsiCo, which also owns Frito-Lay, is especially adept at this strategy. The company honed its magical ingredient swapping skills a few years back when trans fat was still the poster child for bad eating. That's when we got "trans-fat free" Cheetos, among other new and improved junk foods brought to you by Frito-Lay. This product line "improvement" was such big news in 2002 that PepsiCo put out an entire press release to chest-thump about it: Frito-Lay Eliminates Trans Fats from America's Favorite Salty Snacks: Doritos, Tostitos, and Cheetos. Problem solved.

The trouble with how Americans eat is not because of high-fructose corn syrup any more than it was trans fat, or any other single ingredient in the food supply. I realize some may contribute more than others to specific health problems, but the real issue is how Americans are eating too much highly-processed food, period. The ingredients are far less important than the bigger picture. 

We need to stop obsessing over details like food labels, salt content, carbs, and grams of this fat vs. that fat. Instead, we need to talk about (and get the media to focus on) the importance of eating a whole foods (mostly plant-based) diet. One message scares Big Food more than any other: that people should be eating whole food that comes from nature and not from a factory. Industry really has no solution to offer, because their business model is based on processing nature, packaging it, and marking it up for high profits.

But Big Food can easily handle ingredient-bashing, because companies can always find replacements. Don't like this fat any longer? We've got another at the ready. That new sugar is now on the nutrition hit-list? No problem, we'll revert to old sugar. These are all just temporary glitches in Big Food's factory production schedule. Eventually, it's back to business as usual. 

Right now, R & D departments are hard at work in Purchase, New York (PepsiCo HQ), Atlanta (Coca-Cola), and elsewhere testing the next no-calorie sweetener, or natural flavor enhancer, or some other chemical concoction to trick people into buying their new and improved, better-for-you beverages and junk foods. And with each innovation, they get to look like the good guys. How ironic is that?

As long as we keep singling out ingredients to demonize, this cycle will continue. So can we please stop obsessing over HFCS and focus on the real problem: A cheap, endless supply of highly-processed foods. And when we do focus on raw ingredients, the discussion should be about how federal subsidies keep the wrong foods cheap and the right foods expensive. In other words, we should be having an economic discussion about ingredients, not one based on nutrition. 

What do you think?


Ed Bruske said...

No, it isn't just about how much processed foods Americans are eating and, yes, it really is about the huge amounts of sugar--whether high-fructose corn syrup or another form--that Americans are consuming. Fructose (sugar) has a unique relationship with obesity and a host of diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis and now non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. You might want to take a second look at your position that it's just about Americans eating too much and find a way to give sugar the special attention it deserves. Besides cigarettes, sugar in all its forms is probably the biggest health menace on the market.

Dr. Susan Rubin said...

While I agree with Ed that refined sugar is one of the biggest health menaces, Michelle makes a great point.

The bottom line is we need to get back to real food close to home and, gasp, we have to start cooking it ourselves! This simple act is what will take down the billion dollar monster that harms both our health and the environment.

Once we get off the couch and back into the kitchen, we take our power back!

Unknown said...

As long as we design food to entertain - and eat to satisfy our cravings for salt, fat and sugar we will have all of the problems we have. If you can train yourself to eat w/ logic and discipline as your guiding principle you can avoid most disease and add 20 or 30 years of healthy life.

I've read it all, and believe it.

Now, implementation is a different story. It's like quitting smoking to eat well.

Highly processed food is addictive. It's designed to elicit cravings and it is EVERYWHERE - and it funds a lot of big houses and private schools for it's owners.

We are in a monkey trap. We are having a hell of a time letting go of this shiny object that has ensnared us.

Michele Simon said...

Ed, thanks for your feedback. I am not saying that sugar is not a problem; indeed I agree with you that sugar in any form is a major factor in causing all sorts of health problems. But where is all that sugar found? In processed foods. And that's not the only culprit, it's salt, all forms of fake fat, chemicals, etc, all the result of a processed-food diet. If people ate more whole foods, the sugar problem (the salt problem, etc) goes away.

And my position is not just that "Americans are eating too much" (I don't agree the problem is just calories as some others do) but rather than Americans are eating too much processed food, and too many animal products, and not enough plant foods in their natural form.

Hope this helps clarify my post.

hildreth said...

I agree that getting back to simple and sane is the best way to go with food. I wish we wouldn't have to be reduced to using scare tactics about ingredients like HFCS or trans fats or red #2.

But, I disagree that focusing on an issue as broad as 'processed foods' will help the most underserved populations in our country, who are at significantly more risk for diet-related diseases b/c they can *only* afford food that's been processed.

I wish it were different, but I think the most positive public health information campaigns might actually come from narrowing the consumer's focus to the ingredients that *are* more to blame - nutritionally speaking - for the ridiculous rise in things like metabolic syndrome and CVD.

It absolutely *is* the sugar, fat, and sodium in processed foods that needs to be addressed, not the processing altogether. And I don't foresee Big Phood backing down from making a profit from packaged foods anytime soon.

In the meantime, the most poor are getting the sickest. Why is it wrong to tirelessly demand that Big Food make a *healthier* packaged food by removing the things that are the *most* harmful in them?

Andrew Wilder (Eating Rules) said...

Bravo, Michelle, for reminding us that we need to see the forest through the trees.

Details are important, but it's the broad strokes, not the minutiae that will make the biggest differences.

I do not eat HFCS, but primarily because of the processed foods that I find it in. If I see HFCS in the ingredient list, I put the package down without a second thought. Doing so has been a helpful tool in eliminating many processed foods from my diet. Of course, once HFCS is replaced by another sweetener, I'll have to change my tactic!

But I'm also in a fortunate position to be able to choose what foods I want to eat, without significant regard to cost or availability. As Hildreth alludes, food deserts and other cost/availability limitations have become an increasing problem.

I am growing increasingly convinced that the solutions to these and the myriad other problems in our food system will come not from Big Food, of course, but from legislation.

Sure, every time you buy something you're voting with your wallet -- but that's no longer enough. The real, deep changes we need in our system will have to come from our politicians.

Michele Simon said...

Just to be clear, I totally agree we have a major social justice problem, I've written about that before. But I do not believe the solution is "healthier" junk food just because right now, that's all some people can buy. The solution is the same for everyone, but we need to change our policies to make truly healthy food available and affordable for all.

Mrs/Dr. T said...

I love this discussion! As a nutrition scientist that was once employed at a big food company, I have had almost too much experience on this topic. And I agree with you Michele. Sure, we eat ingredients and individual foods, but really what we eat are diets. Diets high in sugar (regardless of where it's from), fat (regardless of where it's from), salt (regardless of where it's from) are associated with a range of diseases. There are several prospective observational studies showing that dietary patterns considered "unhealthy" are associated with increased disease risk and these diets include a number of processed foods like white bread,french fries, processed meats, and confectionery. Will making these processed foods less bad really change the population's overall risk for chronic disease? Maybe, depending on so many different factors. Will changing the overall dietary pattern by reducing intake of processed foods and replacing with fruits, vegetables, and less-processed versions (e.g., whole grain bread) reduce risk for chronic disease? Based on numerous scientific studies, most likely. So based on the evidence to date, where should we direct our efforts? And more importantly, how?

So many layers, so complex, so few realistic solutions to really solve what is a HUGE problem.

Cynthia1770 said...

Let's get back to the original topic. Should the FDA give the ok to change the name of all grades of corn syrups and HFCS to "corn
sugar". No, for this reason.
There is a segment of the population that is fructose intolerant. There are two forms: one a maladsorption problem that
causes bloating, gas and diarrhea, the other form a result of a genetic defect in the liver enzyme that metabolizes fructose (and can be fatal). Lumping all corn syrups together with or without free fructose under the label "corn sugar" would not help those afflicted with FI discern which products they can and cannot eat.

Michele Hays said...

It may well not be the food itself at all: the next time you can think about it, time the number of food advertisements you see in half an hour (count branded packaging as an ad.)

If the effort to brand carrots works as well as branding soda, soon we'll have a nation of orange children.

(PS - did one of you guys - I think I follow most of you - originally bring my attention to this: http://exm.nr/biXxIY ?)

Anonymous said...

Okay, good post overall. Except I don't understand why you comment about Americans eating "too many animal products".

Have you ever looked into the science behind the Paleo Diet? The evidence shows humans evolved by eating both plant and animal food.


Michele Simon said...

Matt, yes humans evolved eating animals, but in very small quantities, because we are not natural carnivores. (When was the last time you chased after an animal, killed it with your teeth and ate it raw?) The current American diet contains way too much meat, egg, and dairy products, and these products look nothing like the animal foods our ancestors ate.

Anonymous said...

The latest research by Professor Cordain shows that 50% of calories consumed by hunter-gathers was from animal and fished food. 50% is not a small amount.

As to the eggs and dairy, dairy was not a part of the evolutionary diet, and eggs were consumed in small amounts on a seasonal basis.