>Being Brought to the Table on the High Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

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When I agreed to go on the Iowa Corn Tour, I knew that I was making a controversial decision. The Corn Grower’s Association was in the midst of a major social media campaign targeted to mommy bloggers to address the concerns over high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). They had reached out to bloggers at the Type A Mom Conference as a sponsor. They had hired the social media consulting firm Mom Central to organize a mommy blogger brunch. Our trip through the Iowa Corn Grower’s Association was just the last initiative as part of that campaign to improve the image of corn farmers and high fructose corn syrup.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I jumped at the chance to go on the trip. I was eager for the opportunity to learn more about corn production, to see the process, and for access to the right individuals to get my questions answered. The other six women invited on the trip (Allison, Laurie, Lisa, Shanda, Susan, and Tanya) all voiced similar reasons for coming on the trip: concern about what we were reading in the press, and the desire to learn more, to better feed our kids. Both food bloggers and more traditional mom bloggers were represented on the trip, carefully selected by the Center for Food Integrity. In communications preceding the trip, Roxi Beck referred to a few posts from each of our blogs, sometimes going back over a year in our archives, really taking the time to get to know us individually. This was no quick selection using Alexa rankings or ShePosts lists.

I learned a lot on the trip, and I learned even more doing research on high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified corn, and farm subsidies as a result of the trip. I certainly achieved my goal of increasing my awareness and knowledge of these issues, and arming myself to better feed my kids. I’m so glad I went, even though the debate over the relationship between mom bloggers and the Corn Growers’ Association continues to rage in the blogosphere.

As soon as mom bloggers began posting that HFCS is the same as sugar, repeating some of the information released at the various events, the blogosphere erupted in protest with posts by Jessica Gottlieb, Liz at Mom 101, and PhD in Parenting to name a few. Blog posts are being written, mud is being slung, and allegations of blogging without integrity are being made. Tempers are running high, and with good cause. Our nutrition is at stake. We’re surrounded by crises: the world population keeps increasing, the ice caps are melting, the climate is growing warmer and more extreme, and obesity in America is at an all-time high. We need someone to blame, and the corn industry with its high fructose corn syrup is an attractive culprit. We want some answers, some changes to be made, some hope for the future, for our children. And we’d like them to be a little less drastic than Marc Bittman’sEat less meat” or Michael Pollans‘ “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The media runs articles on the dangers of high fructose corn syrup, and that begins to look like the solution to the obesity issue in America. Parents begin to look for products without HFCS, products filled with cane sugar like the new Hunt’s ketchup mentioned in this Slash Food article, or even worse, filled with some new manufactured sweetener with a simple non-threatening name so they can tell themselves, “Oh, this says no HFCS, must be fine for my family!” And then we’re right back where we started, with people eating too much sugar-laden junk.

You shouldn’t avoid HFCS because it’s worse for you than sugar. That debate was concluded in a NY Times article quoting well-respected scientists like Dr. Marion Nestle saying that there is no biochemical difference between corn syrup and sugar. But there are other reasons that you might choose to avoid HFCS:

  • Avoid it, as Michael Pollan suggests, because it is a marker of a food that’s been highly processed.
  • Avoid it because you fear genetically modified ingredients, and close to 90% of all seed corn, from which HFCS is produced, is made with GMO seeds.
  • Avoid it because you are fundamentally opposed to finding sugar where you don’t expect it: in bread, in crackers, in ketchup.

But instead of avoiding HFCS, why not simply read the nutrition labels on the food you purchase at the supermarket? Familiarize yourself with what’s high in sugar, what’s high in sodium, what’s high in fat, nd explain it to your kids before passing them an apple or a carrot instead. Only by reading the nutrition labels instead of seeking out one or two bad ingredients can we hope to solve the obesity problem in America.

I don’t believe the Corn Growers’ Association is trying to take advantage of mom bloggers with their social media initiatives. They’re trying to fix an image problem, an effort that experts like Dr. Marion Nestle agree is valid. I actually think that by pushing forward their own agenda, by bringing mom bloggers and their readers into the national nutrition debate, they’re actually helping educate moms on nutrition, and stimulating discussion of a crucial topic.

When choosing to address the HFCS image problem, the Corn Grower’s Association chose to focus on social media, and in so doing they asked moms to the table and brought them into this vital discussion. They could have just as easily chosen print or TV and simply talked at us instead of talking with us. I think that’s worth celebrating. We’re being asked to participate in a national discussion about nutrition, being invited to share our concerns about what we feed our kids. Thanks to social media, we’re being given more power as mothers than we’ve ever had before. It’s up to us to use that power to educate ourselves so we can make the right choices when voting, shopping, and eating.

18 Responses to >Being Brought to the Table on the High Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

  1. >WOW. Interesting to know more, we should know ALL the facts before we make decisions. Jury is still out for me on the HFCS, but I respect that you went and learned more and heard all sides of the story. I'm sorry that our community can rush to judgment many times in heard like behavior.

    Keep up the good work. We don't always need to agree but we need to respect each other!

  2. >Vanessa, I appreciate your transparency and research in the issues of HFCS and it's nutritional value compared to that of regular cane sugar. You did your research, and that it exactly what the other mom bloggers who were flagrantly called out did not do. For some, the defense was "this is all we were told".

    The problem with companies reaching out to bloggers who are not journalists is that information is disseminated without any critical thought given to the one-sided information discussed on such trips. And while Marion Nestle has supported the same information about HFCS vs. sugar nutritionally, the real issue at hand is that HFCS made it way too easy for companies to make unhealthy food cheap to buy. It is less expensive to use than sugar, and that is how it has has a negative effect on our diets. How else do you think soda can be sold for $1 on sale, while an equal-sized container of milk costs double or triple that at the supermarket?

    Yes, the argument still stands that no one forces people to buy products will zero nutritional value. So where does that leave us all? Educate ourselves as you say in this post. Thank you for adding a calming voice to the discussion. Screaming and talking down to our peers will only leave us at a stalemate.

  3. >Kudos to you, Vanessa. Takes a lot nerve to question someone's integrity (IMO) however, you are a shining example of exactly what the blogging community does best. Thank you for posting this information and for your willingness to share, no matter the consequences. I am always learning something new from you, lady.

  4. >@Liz@ThisFullHouse Thank you for your support, lady – you're my role model on integrity and transparency so your feedback means a lot.

    @Jennie – Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for noting my intent, to bring this issue back to a discussion instead of a screaming match or a Twitter fight.

    @Silicon Valley Diva Thank you!

    @Dawn Totally agree that this is all about respect, discussion, and information sharing. Thanks for the comment!

  5. >I wanted to first thank you for being open minded when it comes to high fructose corn syrup and the food that our farmers provide for us. Just for transparency sake I wanted to clarify that we (Corn Refiners Association) were the group that reached out to the bloggers through Mom Central and conducted the webinar on added sugars. I was also the person at the Type A Mom conference representing the Corn Refiners Association. The Corn Growers Association is a separate entity from the Corn Refiners Association, although we are supportive of their efforts.

    As you note, we do want to have this open dialogue with moms, and general consumers alike. We want to be responsive to the concerns that are out there, and that is why we have launched a national educational campaign. If you like we could talk more on the other concerns you have mentioned in regard to the GMO’s and moderation of added sugars.

    Therese Pompa, Social Media Manager, CRA

  6. >Thanks for this post Vanessa. I am glad to see it is more nuanced than some of the posts that came out of the Corn Refiners Association Webinar participants.

    I've learned a fair bit about what the Corn Refiners Association is trying to do with bloggers, but know less about the Corn Growers Association you were involved with. I'm curious: Was your trip designed specifically to address the HFCS issue? Or was it on all issues related to corn?

  7. >After posting my comment, I went back and clicked on your link to the Center for Food Integrity.

    The link you provided goes to the page about the Center for Food Integrity on the SourceWatch website. Did you realize what Source Watch is when you provided that link?

    SourceWatch profiles the activities of front groups, PR spinners, industry-friendly experts, industry-funded organizations, and think tanks trying to influence public opinion on behalf of corporations or government.

    In particular, the page you linked flags the Center for Food Integrity as front group, which is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The Center for Food Integrity is not about protecting the integrity of food. It is about protecting the interests (i.e. profits) of the food industry.

    Perhaps you realized that, but I thought I would point it out in case you didn't because the name on its own sounds quite impressive. I'm glad I followed the link to learn more.

  8. >Vanessa, as always, thank you for the thoughtful post! This is Roxi on behalf of the Center for Food Integrity and I wanted to provide some clarity on CFI and its mission. CFI is a not-for-profit organization governed by a board of directors. We are an organization of farmers, food processors, restaurants and retailers and we don't lobby or advocate for individual food companies or brands. CFI rallies its members around the goal of strengthening consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system by sharing facts and bringing all stakeholders together to address issues that are important to consumers. I encourage any questions, concerns or challenges you and your readers have for those involved in bringing food to the table. It is through this process of listening and having active discussions that we can improve the food system. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about CFI, visit http://www.foodintegrity.org. Thank you! ~Roxi

  9. >Roxi,

    Thank you for clarifying CFI's mission.

    My problem with the "goal of strengthening consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system" is that today's food system is broken.

    I would like to see an organization dedicated to making significant changes to today's food system. That is the type of organization I would be willing to go to Iowa for.

    My biggest questions/concerns with today's food system include:
    – Environmental impacts of excess transportation and packaging
    – Excess of unhealthy ingredients in processed foods (sodium, sugar/HFCS, unhealthy fats, etc.)
    – Farming and processing practices that are harmful to the environment and to human and animal health
    – Insufficient quality control
    – Deceptive and unethical marketing practices

    When I see an organization that is truly dedicated to making changes, I'll be happy to listen and collaborate. But organizations that want to promote the status quo are not my cup of tea and have nothing to do with integrity.

  10. >This group is lucky to have someone as thoughtful as you on their tour. It's nice to see a blogger asking the tough questions, as I know you did. I wish I was seeing it more. Jennie's points are spot-on.

    I am interested in hearing more about what you learned about GMOs and subsidies, both as a result of your trip and from your own research. I'm also interested in the Center for Food Integrity's connections to Monsanto.

  11. >I appreciate reading about your motivations behind taking the trip. I would be similarly motivated to see the operations and ask/answer questions since I'm a factory geek.

    I also like the list of reasons to avoid HFCS, despite the spin, and strive to do that for my kids.

    I am deeply skeptical of the Center for Food Integrity though and agree with Annie that they're trying to preserve the image of a broken food system.

  12. >This was a thoughtful and measured series of posts on a highly controversial and important topic and anything that provides a outlet for discourse is a good thing.

    I agree with @Mom101 and @PhDinParenting's comments fully and would love to hear more about how CFI is involved with Monsanto and, most especially, as a non-profit, who their key donors/financial supporters are.

    "Integrity" is too big a word to throw around for title purposes alone.

  13. >@Annie – Did not realize that I had posted link to Source Watch website for Food Integrity. I won't change it, in the interest of sharing valuable food research sources for my readers. That said, I don't believe that Roxi and the Food Integrity Team disguised their motives for the trip in any way: to improve our awareness of what farmers do today. She and the Corn Growers Association folks encouraged me to keep asking my questions, insisting that these types of discussions were just what they wanted to have when they organized the trip.

    @Liz from Mom101 – I got a lot of information on the trip on the Monsanto process – fascinating details about the mechanics of growing futuristic sounding genetically modified corn. As the focus of the trip was the farmers, Monsanto was really addressed from the standpoint of pesticide resistance and increase in crop yield. I'd love to take Therese up on her offer to provide more information on its safety. As you know, I come from France, and the Europeans are incredibly passionate about their resistance to GMO crops.

    @Roxi – Thank you again for the chance to go on this trip. I learned so much, more than I ever thought possible in 2 days. I hope that you do more trips and continue to invite a variety of bloggers, including more liberal passionate foodies like me so we can keep the discussion going, really utilizing the power of social media.

  14. >Annie, Mom 101, RookieMom, Pam and all others who are concerned with today’s food system,

    We know that there are significant concerns about what is going on in today’s food system. It doesn’t look like it used to, and we (I’m an off-the-farm consumer too) don’t have a way to easily and meaningfully interact with farms from which the majority of our food comes… save for the farmer’s market or local orchard that some of us are fortunate enough to have access.

    There are lots of facts to clarify:
    -We are in no way saying that today’s food system is the end-all-be-all solution to producing food.
    -We know there are improvements that HAVE to be made.
    -We know significant progress has been made over the past few decades to ensure the land, the animals, the communities in which the farms exist and the people who work on the farms are taken care of all in an effort to bring safe and wholesome food to our plates.
    -We know that we have to find a way to produce more food to feed our growing global population. (The United Nations says our population will double by 2050.)

    The challenge for all of us is to assess the system and make choices that will be critical in providing food for you and me, and all the mouths on the planet, without "undoing" the pieces of the system that are working (kind of like repairing a flat tire instead of throwing away the whole car).

    As mom to a 15-month old, I understand and share your concerns. Annie, I have taken note of the list you provided, and I invite any/all each of you have as you think of them – email is the best method for me roxi.beck@foodintegrity.org.

    CFI’s goal isn’t to tell you what to think, it’s to connect you with the food chain and the people involved in it so that you can collect the information and make the decision for yourself. Consumers have a right to expect everyone involved in the food chain to act responsibly and, more importantly, to hold them accountable when that doesn’t happen.

    Again, please send me any questions you have so that we can continue the conversation. Please note, I'm going to be out of the office this afternoon and tomorrow, but will be in touch as soon as possible.

    Thanks again to Vanessa for bringing forward these important issues.

    Best regards, Roxi roxi.beck@foodintegrity.org

  15. >Hi Vanessa. I'm coming to the conversation a little late. I so deeply appreciate this post and your point of view. The most upsetting thing about what I've read about the tour and the bloggers on it was that it seems (could be wrong) that there wasn't a whole lot of research and critical thinking on the participants part… and your post proves that wrong.

    That said, while I totally get that it's valid for an organization to want–no, need–to fix an image problem, that doesn't mean we have to accept it. The Corn Grower's Association is absolutely just doing their job to survive. Fair enough. But I don't want them to survive. And that influences my work: how I write about food and the ingredients I choose when developing recipes.

    Sounds harsh. I know. And I don't think that the debate should be one of simply comparing HFCS to cane sugar. Rather, HFCS is a symptom of a much larger problem. It's part of an ecosystem designed to prioritize profit over health. And we lose nothing good by getting rid of it. (And I know it's complicated–it can be argued that we gain nothing good by just getting rid of it. This is complicated stuff.)

    So, while, yes, it comes down to personal choice and, yes, your child will not implode by eating in moderation something that contains HFCS and, yes, it may be worse to eat a ton of cane sugar vs a little bit of HFCS… I still see it as part of my job as a voice speaking to families about food to help parents make food choices that are good for our bodies, our planet and our communities. Choices that don't enmesh us in the insanity of politics and profits, lobbies and subsidies. Choices that are as wholesome as possible. Because these are the choices that, if we can all make them together, will improve not just our healthy, but also our farming communities, our spirit, our priorities, our overall relationship with food and the planet.

  16. >I've spent the morning reading the reports of the moms who went on the trip, and it is really hard to make a sound judgment.

    To be sure, the idea of paying for some mom bloggers to come out and validate what's going on out there in Iowa is suspect just by nature. We all know that, and the moms who went sure sound aware of that too. They weren't going to be snowed.

    Yet most moms also get a sense from watching the food documentaries recently that they aren't quite in the right spirit either. Many of the criticisms of corn syrup and industry make sense, but the lifestyle isn't altogether sustainable. Most of us know our kid eating one Pop tart isn't going to kill them, and when we see the kinds of farmers you all were exposed to on your trip, we feel even more sympathy for those who are trying to do their job well even if they are caught up in a less than ideal industry.

    I think we're all thankful to hear about these farmers and faces behind the controversy who are honorable.

    Yet after all the reading this morning from both sides of the issue, I do think a subtle snow job occurred. I am not sure exactly how, but I sense that these moms and even the farmers they spoke with are being used in some way. Perhaps even the well-meaning lady from CFI above is also.

    Getting honest people mixed up in a dishonest conversation is tricky. Something is being protected and hidden, but we don't know what because most of the people we meet in the discovery are well-meaning.

    Still, this is my gut impression.

  17. >Wonderful Vanessa. Thank you for bringing it back to the basics on what we need to help us make the decisions.

    I stopped listening to the chatter because it was so ugly, and honestly, it lost it's value to me because of the approach.

    Thank you for the grace in which you've approached this and for sharing your opinion in a way that enabled me to really want to stay and listen to what you had to say on the matter. Bravo amiga.

    I hope to see you soon!

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