retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

In a high-stakes battle for the consumer’s sweet tooth, a grass roots uprising has the edge on Big Corn.

Just another example of the power of social networking.

As noted in the New York Times and on MNB earlier this week, there is a debate raging about the health impact of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs. sugar as a sweetener in processed foods. I’ve read the scientific studies, expert interviews and competing claims, and have to tell you that both sides present impressive data and conclusions. As a mom, as well as a columnist, this debate doesn’t give me any sure conclusion on which to act.  So if I'm making a decision about what to feed my kids, I'm probably going to go with the loudest voice that seems most in tune with my priorities. Which in this case is sugar rather than the more highly processed HFCS.

And that is clearly the loudest voice in cyberspace, as the anti-HFCS folks rule the internet, whether it is on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And by mobilizing consumer sentiment, they have prompted major food manufacturers to shelve HFCS for plain old sugar.

The Times article cited ConAgra’s decision to reformulate Hunt’s ketchup, replacing HFCS with sugar, following the lead of such heavy-hitters as Gatorade, Pepsi Throwback, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, several Kraft salad dressings and more.

ConAgra said the change was based on “consumer preference” and not science, and the Hunt’s bottle appearing in stores this month will be emblazoned with the banner “No high fructose corn syrup.”

The Goliath in this showdown is the industry group the Corn Refiners Association, which contends that HCFS is a safe natural ingredient processed from corn. The CRA has poured $30 million in the past two years on its “Sweet Surprise” publicity campaign, yet its TV ads have become the subject of pointed, much-viewed spoofs on YouTube.

The unlikely David is one Ivan Royster, 27, a citizen activist with a day job at the North Carolina State University library. Royster just last year started his Ban HFCS page on Facebook and now has more than 125,000 followers and a growing Twitter audience. He told me yesterday the reaction to the 2,000-word article in the Sunday Times had been “phenomenal” and “sent a very strong message to the food companies that the consumers do not want to partake in the ingestion of their cheap processed syrup. They would rather have a natural product such as sugar.”

And that sums up the spirited dialogue on the internet, and the important lesson for food producers, retailers and marketers. Consumers are demanding to know precisely what they – and their families – are eating. They are concerned about obesity and diabetes and are eager to share scientific information, opinions and more on Facebook and on blogs. They share links to documentaries such as Food, Inc. and King Corn.

In this case, they prefer that old devil sugar over its less-costly competitor, HFCS. They are not only calling for a ban of products with HFCS, but are rallying support for Hunt’s ketchup and other products now made with sugar.

In today’s world, you don’t need pricey market research or a focus group to listen to what the consumer is saying.

Just an internet connection.

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