From trans fats and hormones to hydrogenated oils and monosodium glutamate (MSG), the list of food ingredients and additives that consumers are actively avoiding continues to grow, according to our ongoing Pulse studies. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is actually the number two item on the list of ingredients Americans say they’re trying to avoid, which makes sense given that it’s been under pretty heavy fire in the news media for being linked to a variety of health issues, including accelerated obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and liver disease.
As an office challenge, I was charged with assuming the role of a typical American, actively trying to avoid consuming HFCS. The exact challenge was to go a full month without consuming any foods that contained high fructose corn syrup. Brimming with confidence after having recently given up sodas, I accepted.
As I began my challenge, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to avoid HFCS. I had assumed it would be lurking in a vast majority of foods – especially the processed ones. A research trip to my grocery store showed that HFCS was present in many foods, but not as widespread as I had assumed. Perhaps the hype was overblown?
A deep-dive into some articles on the subject quickly brought the dangers associated with HFCS, and other sweeteners, crashing down on me. The real problem lies less in the type of sweeteners that people are consuming and more with the overwhelming amount of sugar being consumed. As consumers are buying more processed foods sweetened with HFCS, more HFCS is being produced to feed the need. It’s a vicious cycle that is certainly contributing to record numbers of obese children, as well as health problems that simply were not an issue in our society decades ago.
But what about the other side of the argument? I wanted to give corn syrup a chance to defend itself, and found plenty of information justifying its use in modern foods. The website sweetsurprise.com, run by the Corn Refiners Association, is one source devoted to dispelling the myths of HFCS. Unsurprisingly, the biggest argument being made for HFCS is that it is identical to table sugar (or claims to be) in the way it is absorbed through the body.
So, if it’s just as bad as the other guys, it’s totally OK to continue using it, right?
Not so fast. Through our Pulse research, we have been tracking the importance of transparency for a few years. We know that what companies are doing behind the curtain is oftentimes just as important to consumers as what goes on in front of the curtain. Consumers are doing more research than ever before about the products they’re purchasing, and marketers need to understand that an educated consumer won’t fall for bunk.
Instead of taking the easy road and camouflaging the dangers of their product, corn syrup producers should work on promoting moderation first and foremost. Though the Corn Refiners Association website referenced above does offer some healthy eating tips, they are not as easily accessed as the information about why HFCS is not as bad as the media portrays it to be. Myths and comparisons aside, HFCS producers should be approaching consumers honestly about the dangers of too much sugar, while giving them easy steps they can take with their families toward healthy eating.
So what should companies who may be facing similar issues do to make sure they’re continuing to build a strong relationship with consumers?
- Be honest. Consumers are savvy and want to trust the brands whose products they are consuming. Don’t give them a reason to question the relationship.
- Walk with them. Consumers want guidance. By giving them easy and prescriptive steps to follow to, they’ll feel empowered and will likely come back for more.
- Give them something to brag about. Consumers love brands that help them project a certain image, especially amongst their friends. Masking certain negative aspects about your product may help your sales in the short term, but don’t expect any long-term loyalty. A burned customer is likely to tell a lot of people about their negative experience with your brand.
Honesty is definitely the best policy. By keeping this in mind, brands should experience some sweet results.