Snackwell’s announced recently that it has committed itself to removing high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oil, and artificial flavors and colors from its snack foods. The brand, which was recently purchased by Back to Nature Foods Company, LLC, is looking to rebuild the same level of success that it realized during the height of the low fat diet craze. The low-fat diet craze gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s after studies were released indicating that diets high in saturated fat led to heart disease and even death. As a result, many Americans eschewed butter, red meat, and other sources of saturated fat for a high-carbohydrate diet. As more and more shoppers filled their carts with margarine, egg substitutes, and pasta, companies began offering low-fat and cholesterol free products to stay competitive.
Now that the dangers of saturated fat have been called into question by recent studies, SnackWell’s is once again rebranding itself to remain popular. In June 2015, the producer will launch two new products “made with healthier ingredients,” including “a new Devil’s Food Cookie Cake favor–Chocolate Mint–and 100% Whoel Grain Chocolate Chip Cookie Bites.” The cookie bites are manufactured in a peanut free facility making them school-compliant. Due to the severe peanut allergies that some students face, many schools have implemented a policy prohibiting students from bringing peanut-containing foods to school. The packaging for these new products proudly displays that the products are made without the aforementioned ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup.
SnackWell’s is not the first food company to drop high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its ingredient labels. Yogurt giant Yoplait recently announced that its yogurt products will no longer contain the sweetener. Pepsi dropped the sweetener back in 2010, and Kraft announced in February 2015 that it has decided to sweeten its drinks with sugar instead of HFCS. In December 2014, Hershey reported that its consumers seemed to prefer real sugar over HFCS, and that the company was looking into removing HFCS from its products permanently.
HFCS is a common sweetener found in sodas, flavored drinks, condiments, jams, canned goods, candy, and many packaged foods. Corn processors create HFCS from corn starch, which is nearly 100 percent glucose. Like other starches, corn starch consists of long chains of glucose. To begin the HFCS process, enzymes produced from bacteria are added to the corn starch, which break down the starch into shorter glucose chains. Next, another enzyme derived from fungus is added to the mixture, which breaks the short chains up into glucose molecules. At this stage, the mixture basically consists of regular corn syrup. At this point, another bacteria-derviced enzyme is added that transforms some of the glucose molecules into fructose molecules.
When ingested, HFCS does not bond with fiber, causing the body to process HFCS rapidly and leaving the body unsatisfied. Other reports indicate that HFCS leads to diabetes, increased triglyceride levels, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.
Although there is competing research regarding the alleged health dangers of HFCS, the increase in Americans’ consumption of HFCS has paralleled the rise of diabetes and obesity-related health conditions, suggesting that there may be some correlation between weight gain and HFCS consumption. HFCS may not be the sole sweetener to blame for Americans growing weight problem. Added sugars of any kind can lead to health issues like diabetes, including both table sugar and organic raw cane sugar. HFCS, however, allegedly poses unique health challenges.
In 2011, the United States was home to 84 million acres of corn crop, with a total estimated value of over $63 billion dollars. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that roughly 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States is used for livestock, poultry, and fish production both domestically and overseas. Twenty percent of the United States’ total corn production is exported to other countries, making this nation a major player in the global corn trade market. The EPA also reports that corn is grown on over 400,000 farms throughout the country.
According to the National Corn Growers Association, each American eats roughly 25 pounds of corn each year, with roughly twelve percent of corn production dedicated to direct-consumption foods like corn chips or HFCS. Corn is also used for ethanol, which is used as engine fuel and fuel additive.
Consumers aren’t the only ones taking issue with corn these days. Many environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns regarding the potential threat of monoculture, which is the practice of growing only one type of crop on a field at a given time. The yin to monoculture’s yang is polyculture, which involves producing more than one type of crop in the same place at the same time. Today, monoculture predominates the agricultural production stage with corn and soybeans playing the leading roles.
Monoculture corn is commonly grown from GMO seeds and heavily treated with pesticides throughout its growth cycle, making the plant and its products a prime target for opponents of either practice. For every article and study touting the dangers of monoculture, i.e., honeybee decline and soil depletion, there is another article or study highlighting its benefits, i.e., technological developments and efficiency of production.
The same is true for HFCS. For every study alleging that consumption of the corn-derived sweetener is bad for you health, there is another study reporting that we have insufficient data to make a definitive determination regarding the alleged benefits of HFCS. Regardless of where the science lands, food companies are not waiting around before they change their ingredients. Many consumers have made it clear that they would prefer products that lack HFCS and America’s mega food producers have made it clear that they are willing to meet this demand.
Consumers’ battle against HFCS is far from over. In December 2014, reports surfaced indicating that at least one food manufacturer has renamed HFCS. For example, General Mills’ Vanilla Chex cereal contained a label on the front of the box indicating that the product contained “no high fructose corn syrup.” The ingredient list, however, listed isolated fructose, which is another name for HFCS-90. HFCS-90 is a product that is sometimes incorporated in products branded as “natural” or “light.” HFCS-90 consists of 90 percent fructose, which is a natural occurring simple sugar. In comparison, regular HFCS contains either 55 or 42 percent fructose. Products containing HFCS-90 typically do not list HFCS in the ingredient label, opting instead for the less conspicuous “fructose” or “fructose syrup.”
HFCS has been “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA since 1976, with HFCS-90 remaining unapproved. In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association filed a petition with the FDA asking the agency to allow food producers to list HFCS as “corn sugar” on ingredient labels. The FDA declined the request in 2012. Throughout the years, various groups have also filed petitions with the FDA calling for the agency to change the rules regarding HFCS labeling requirements and to explore the potential side effects of HFCS consumption.
Recently, the FDA has proposed a rule change that would require companies to list the amount of added sugars in their products on the ingredient panel. According to the FDA’s announcement, the “proposal takes into account new data and information, including recommendations from federal agencies and information from other expert groups, citizen petitions, and public comments.” The announcement also notes that Americans get roughly 16 percent of their calories from added sugars, with “soda, energy and sports drinks, grain based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts and candy” constituting the major sources.
Although the FDA has mostly declined to take a head-on approach to the great HFCS debate, it’s proposed rule change regarding added sugars will undoubtedly have a not-so-sweet impact on the industry.