HFCS Corn Wars: A Surprise That’s Far from Sweet

“Mom, go to SweetSurprise.com right now!” yelled my daughter in an urgent commando bark.

Before I could even protest her lousy timing, I got a “NOW! I’m not kidding! GO! GO!” she shouted at me like a drill sergeant. Sheesh. Well, when she’s right, she’s right. Turns out ABC Family was running not one, not two, but EIGHT rotations of two HFCS commercial spots that blitzed kids with the notion that high fructose corn syrup was just fine and dandy sans critical analysis. (See both REALLY corny spots and some rousing commentary at The Consumerist)

Guess this is what Joi was talking about on her Facebook update status when she quipped, ‘what’s next, marketing MSG?’ oooh, yum yum.

Granted, Trans-fats, HFCS, MSG, have all had their heyday in the demon du’ jour spotlight…but as distinguished author, speaker, and food policy queen Marion Nestle says in her blog,“OK, so lots of people think HFCS is the new trans-fat. It isn’t, but is insulting your intelligence an effective way to deal with that concern?” Exactly.

My daughter and I turned the ad viewings into a media literacy sport, tallying annoying new finds with each subsequent airing. Not sure who ‘won’ in that game…

We dissected the demeanor, the motivation, the shadow-screened ‘Corn Refiners Association’ logo, the condescending and patronizing ‘didn’t you know?’ tonality…

We moved on to the smug stereotypes, racial/gender pairings, smarmy dialogue, (I like your shirt? ugh. Puhleeeeze!) and decided it was time to get outside and play volleyball before we turned into a sarcasm snark-fest mimicking Joan and Melissa Rivers style. I think the ‘moderation message’ riled us both the most, as we wondered how many poor kids would swallow this sweet slop like a sci-fi pill in the Matrix?

How can you possibly ‘moderate your intake’ when HFCS is embedded in our entire nation’s food supply whether it’s soup, bread, sauce, even kidney beans fergoshsakes? Since she’s helped me prep for our Dare to Compare: Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition in countless sessions where we send kids on scavenger hunts to raid their pantries and make a list of what products do NOT have HFCS! (much shorter list!) I think the ‘moderation’ strategy bristled us both a bit. (you have to go OUT of your way to find HFCS-free foods)

To me, these HFCS Sweet Surprise ads are like chem cuisine itself…well packaged, attractive, tasty morsels, empty in value that many will mindlessly digest with ease.

C’mon, let’s get real, people. As I wrote in this op-ed in our local paper, “Why Childhood Obesity Prevention Seems Wafer Thin” there’s a big ‘disconnect’ to me, a veritable ‘elephant in the living room’ here…

How can there be a ‘war on obesity’ when corporate coffers are airing food industry propaganda and folks are shilling for HFCS during kids shows?

Our own Shaping Youth Correspondent Rebecca Scritchfield is literally slogging through Hurricane Hannah for the Diabetes Action Team like a Marine foot soldier…

…Yet here we have HFCS sniper-fire from a foxhole to undermine and erode our core mission? Be clear, I’m not even arguing the nuances or biochem compounds of HFCS in this post, I’ll let Rebecca and our RD, MPH, MD, PhD advisors do that…as some say it’s a ‘wash,’ among the various sweetners, with ‘too much of all!’

I’m simply asking for media and marketing accountability to acknowledge complicity and stop lobbing dietary grenades into kids’ programming to neutralize those of us striving for a healthier physical and emotional space on this planet!

As it is, kids (and parents!) are trying to figure out“What to Eat” amidst mega-marketing where items ‘sound’ healthy but aren’t…or ARE healthy, but pretend they’re NOT so people will buy them!

(I’m serious, folks, I just bought some ‘Sugar Plums’ at Trader Joes, aka ‘fresh prunes’! Whatever works, right? Brilliant counter-marketing, actually, TJs. Bravo!)

It’s hard enough to make sense of the label lingo and food marketing tricks, and when you get something complicated like the HFCS politics into the equation, it’s downright befuddling.

The FDA consistently waffles on allowing and disallowing the term ‘natural’ to be associated with HFCS on labeling, for starters…Remember the CSPI claims lawsuit and Shaping Youth counter-marketing session slamming the HFCS in Capri Sun as “natural?”

It doesn’t take a PhD or MPH to reveal there’s an obvious Appetite for Profit in play here with the on again off again lobbying and Food Politics(Again, read Michele Simon’s book at left; and Marion Nestle’s nutrition trilogy; a must for media literacy!) I’d rather point you to the pros to take on balanced views like our own Rebecca Scritchfield did on this very topic of the FDA and the ‘natural’ labeling of HFCS via Health Commentary.

Likewise, I’ll defer to the medical community on HFCS dietary hazards (Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy, and the Mayo Clinic, etc.) the scientific and legal policy pros to deconstruct HFCS’ unnatural molecular chemistry (CSPI Center for Science in the Public Interest, Public Citizen Consumer Law & Policy Blog, Food Law Profs, etc.) the HFCS planetary/eco-impact to industrial agriculture critics like Michael Pollan and his book In Defense of Food (who reminds us to ‘consider the source’ in a great npr interview here) and the HFCS danger debate carving chasms in both mainstream media and the blogosphere…(see links at the end)

Instead, I’d just like to reiterate the astro-turf phoniness factor of pretending to care about childhood obesity while marketing HFCS with full tilt reckless abandon. It’s just not natural to keep ingesting this empty calorie lipservice.

What can YOU do? THINK for yourself. Act for yourself.

Assess the qualitative and quantitative messages. Question assumptions. Use critical thinking skills in ALL your consumption (media AND meals!)

And? —Help out Rebecca’s Diabetes Action Team running the Marine Marathon if you can! All together now, in cadence…“I don’t know but I’ve been told…” HFCS’ gettin’ old…”

Sound off, one two…sound off, three four…

Related Resources/Voices in the HFCS Debate

Consumerist: Looks Like HFCS Manufacturers Are Getting A Little Nervous

CSPI: Corn Refiners Ad Campaign Called Deceptive

Marion Nestle: HFCS, Sweet Surprise?

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Sugars and Satiety: Does the Type of Sweetner Make A Difference?

L.A. Times: What’s Making Us Fat? Maybe It’s All That HFCS

HFCS: Junk Food Science: The Science of Sweets

WNBC/NYC: Why Is Corn Syrup In So Many Foods?

Mayo Clinic: Why is HFCS So Bad For Me?

Newswise: Study By the American Chemical Society Suggests Link Btwn HFCS & Diabetes

The Daily Green: All Natural Junk Food?

Reuters: How Sugar Sneaks Into Your Diet

SF Gate: Sugar Coated; We’re Drowning in HFCS

Consumerist: High Fructose Corn Syrup No Longer ‘Natural’

Washington Post Series Obesity Threatens An Entire Generation

An Overview of Childhood Obesity Chart

The Search for Solutions

Misjudging Nutritional Expectations: Low Sugar Isn’t the Obvious Choice

Restaurant Food: A-Z Snapshot from Major Food Chains

Obesity Threatens A Generation

How Obesity Harms A Child’s Body

Related Posts From Amy Jussel at Shaping Youth

And S.Y. Correspondents Dr. Robyn Silverman & Rebecca Scritchfield

Dr. Robyn: How Much Sugar Is In My Child’s Juice?

Dr. Robyn: How Much Sugar Is In My Child’s Food?

Rebecca Scritchfield: One Big Fat Problem: Why the FDA Needs to Require Disclosure of Added Sugars

Rebecca Scritchfield’s Balanced Health & Nutrition: Food Marketing Category

Shaping Youth: Digital Marketing Tactics Revealed to FTC: Report At DigitalAds.org

Shaping Youth: Obesity Risk Twice As High In Hispanic Kids

Shaping Youth: Why Childhood Obesity Prevention Seems Wafer Thin

Shaping Youth: Bogus Junk Food Bans/Bait-n-Switch Tactics With School Policy

Shaping Youth: Kids’ Food Fight Turns Into Industry DodgeBall Game

Shaping Youth/Counter-Marketing: Show & Tell Tactics That Stick in Kids Brains

Shaping Youth Slams Capri Sun With Counter-Marketing

Shaping Youth: Snack Attack: Counter-Marketing Using Shaping Youth’s “THREEP”

For More Pertinent Posts See Shaping Youth’s Childhood Obesity Category



  1. wow that is alot of information on HFCorn Syrup. that is going to take days to digest.

    oh-no pun intended.

  2. Thanks for all this info! I, too, saw these ridiculous spots the other day and was just dumbfounded.

    As for advertising MSG, isn’t that coming down the pike pretty soon, with this “umami” craze?

  3. @ Molly: thanks for visiting, and hey, that’s a GREAT pun.

    @ LitDr2Be: Good to hear from you again! Yes, for those who don’t know what she’s talking about on the “umami” craze…just wiki it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami

    I’m a huge Asian food freak, so I tend to have to watch my sodium intake as it is, since soy sauce seems to course through my veins from my days growing up in Hawaii and Japan…but yes, I DO try to watch the ingredients and intake on the natural front, as you can ‘overdo’ pretty easily in ANY cultural cuisine…whether it’s carbs in Italian pasta, sat fat in French cooking, or shoyu-n-sticky rice in ‘plate lunch’ style as we used to say in the Islands… 😉

    Guess that ‘moderation message’ kicks back in, eh?

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