First it was calories, then it was fat and sodium. The latest health concern: high-fructose corn syrup, and the trend is accelerating.
As the country struggles with obesity issues, ingredients in food have been under increasing scrutiny, bringing some confusion to the marketplace but also opportunities for companies as they try to differentiate themselves in a competitive grocery store.
Consumer concern has been getting a quick response from food companies, as many remove high-fructose corn syrup from well-known products, replacing it with cane or beet sugar. Downers Grove, Ill.-based Sara Lee Corp. is the latest to jump on board, removing the sweetener from its two best-selling breads.
Among the litany of big-name products that already have undergone recipe overhauls: Hunt's ketchup, Gatorade and everything in Starbucks' pastry case.
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High-fructose corn syrup, the widely used and historically inexpensive sweetener, has been getting a critical look from food scientists and many American families, thanks at least in part to books, movies and studies looking at why Americans continue to gain weight. First lady Michelle Obama has said she won't feed her daughters products containing the ingredient.
Many medical and nutritional professionals, as well as the Corn Refiners Association, contend that all sweeteners are metabolized the same way.
A Princeton University study, on the other hand, has shown that long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup does lead to abnormal increases in body fat, especially around the belly. Books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" have spurred the debate, saying that widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup is part of what's wrong with the American diet.
Last week, Sara Lee, the maker of Jimmy Dean sausages and the iconic frozen cheesecake, announced it would remove high-fructose corn syrup from its Soft & Smooth and 100 percent Whole Wheat bread lines because their consumers — moms in particular — had asked them to.
"We're seeing more and more consumers asking for products without high-fructose corn syrup. As we looked at unsolicited responses from our consumer hotline, and pairing that up with focus group research and talking to Sara Lee moms, removal of high-fructose corn syrup was something they saw as a positive for them," said Jeff Dryfhout, director or Sara Lee North American Fresh Bakery.
Over the past few years, Kraft Foods Inc. has removed high-fructose corn syrup from its Capri Sun juice drinks, Wheat Thins, Premium crackers, Nabisco 100-calorie packs and most of its salad dressings.
"We know there are consumers who look for products that don't have high-fructose corn syrup, which is why we have made the changes we've made," said Bridget Mac-Connell, a Kraft spokeswoman.
A danger, according to nutritionists, is that a label reading "HFCS-free" could become synonymous with "healthy."
Keri Gans, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are basically the same: They "provide a lot of extra calories and no nutritional value. The message should be that people should limit their baked goods intake and eat more fruit instead, less processed foods with nothing added to it, and more whole foods, vegetables and whole grains," she said.
"Then it would be a moot point. Then we would be getting the consumer to be eating more of what we should be eating to begin with."
In a statement, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said the opposite may be true.
"When consumers are armed with facts about high-fructose corn syrup, they often view food companies that market products as 'high-fructose corn syrup-free' more negatively," she said, citing a survey that said only 3.6 percent of consumers are concerned about high-fructose corn syrup. "A sugar is a sugar, whether it's corn sugar or cane sugar."