By Dan Childs, Health Page Producer, ABCNews.com
Presidential candidates aren’t the only ones banking on television ads to prop up their public images. A recently launched ad campaign for high-fructose corn syrup is looking to salvage the embattled reputation of the ubiquitous sweetener.
The ad, if you have not seen it, can be viewed here. And it is as much a lesson in intra-neighborhood passive aggressiveness as it is a lesson in nutrition.
"Wow, you really don’t care what the kids eat, huh?" says one mother to another at a child’s birthday party.
"Excuse me?" asks the other mom, who is pouring a glass of punch for her child.
"That has high-fructose corn syrup in it… You know what they say about it."
"What?" smirks punch-mom.
Obviously realizing that she has not brought her guns to this fight, the fructose-phobic mom balks, giving punch-mom the opportunity to extol the virtues of high fructose corn syrup — namely, that it is natural, made from corn, and, "like sugar, it’s fine in moderation."
Mom No. 1, visibly cowed, compliments mom No. 2′s blouse. She silently vows never to question the corn industry again. Fade to black.
The ad is brought to us by the Corn Refiners Association; you can check out the official Web site of the campaign here. At a time when one in three school-aged children are overweight or obese, the effort to spruce up the sweetener’s image may come not a moment too soon.
But is it enough? Many nutrition experts continue to assail the ingredient, which is present in everything from breakfast cereal to spaghetti sauce.
High fructose corn syrup producers pull out most, if not all of the stops on their site — including tip sheets that provide bullet points on how not-so-bad their product is.
"The American Medical Association (AMA) recently concluded that ‘high-fructose corn syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners,’" the site says.
But isn’t this really a bit like saying your car’s flat tires contributed no more than did its lack of gasoline, bad brakes and cracked radiator to your having to take the bus to work in the morning? Nutrition expert Dr. Darwin Deen of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York thinks so.
"I am profoundly upset about these ads," he says. "There are no foods that can’t be consumed as part of a healthy diet, but high-fructose corn syrup needs to be on the list of foods to limit to whatever extent possible."
Even if it is true that high fructose corn syrup is no worse than sugar, that means it still offers four calories per gram. This may not sound like a lot. But if the punch that mom is pouring in the televised ad is anything like one popular brand of fruit drink for which water and high fructose corn syrup are the two main ingredients, that eight-ounce glass she’s pouring for her kid contains about 120 calories. For kids 9 to 13 years old, the total amount of daily calories recommended by the American Heart Association tops out at between 1,600 and 1,800.
So if her kid finishes that glass and goes back for a single refill, he or she has guzzled down 13 to 15 percent of the calories needed in a given day in two drinks alone.
"It’s true that overall, the evidence suggests it is not demonstrably better or worse for health than sucrose," says Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. "However, because of corn subsidies, HFCS is added in copious amounts to the food supply, and in places cane sugar is not — from pasta sauce and salad dressing, to chips. It is the aggregate dose above all that makes HFCS [harmful]."
Also, to call high fructose corn syrup "natural" is a bit of a stretch. True, it’s made from corn. But don’t think for a moment that a laboratory or processing plant isn’t involved. Farmer Brown cannot pluck an ear of corn from his field, squeeze it, and make high fructose corn syrup trickle out. It’s just not that simple.
All of this being said, the commercial does have its merits. Specifically, it strikes at the heart of the growing trend of demonizing certain foods for what they contain, rather than what they actually are. Perhaps we’ve become so obsessed with cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium and the other invisible components of our food that we cannot see what is right in front of us.
"Basically, the ads are simple and true," says Carla Wolper of the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. "No food should be demonized… Obesity is a result of too many calories, not too much HFCS."
Nor is bad health, by extension, the result of any one ingredient. Say, for example, you are at your favorite fast-food joint. You read the posted nutritional information about the meal you’re preparing to enjoy. "This fried chicken has trans fat in it!" you might realize.
You know what else that fried chicken has in it? Fried chicken.
So maybe the mom doling out the high-fructose corn syrup in the commercial was right after all.
Then again, we never do get to see how chunky her kid is.