How Sweet It Isn’t

We’ve all seen the commercials claiming that corn syrup isn’t that bad for you.

At least that’s the message the Corn Refiners Association (CRA)  is going for by asking the Food and Drug Administration to change its name to “corn sugar.” Nutrition experts have admitted that the sweetener is comparable to sugar, but sugar is nonetheless extremely fattening and too much of it can cause serious health problems.

Corn syrup was originally used because it cost less than real sugar; but now that there’s little price difference, it’s not used as much. The public perception of the sweetener hasn’t helped either. That may be the reason why the CRA recently budgeted $20 to $30 million for PR and advertising expenses for corn syrup, according to, a blog dedicated to healthy lifestyles. The blog also named several reasons why corn syrup is bad for you:

1. Cancer cells are attracted to fructose and the sweetener has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

2. High fructose corn syrup can sometimes be contaminated with mercury.

3. The sweetener is also linked to autism and mental retardation.

4. Fructose is linked to liver disease and consuming drinks sweetened with it could have the same effect as alcohol.

5. The sweetener has been linked to obesity.

6. Fructose is also linked to high blood pressure.

A study conducted by Princeton University showed that high-fructose corn syrup accounted for significant weight gain in rats exposed to the sweetener, compared to rats exposed to table sugar only.

Keeping those facts in mind, here is something just as startling:

“Americans consume, on average, 35 pounds of the processed corn sweetener every year (ten years ago, we were eating 45 pounds of the stuff),” according to

With all these facts posted online, I am reminded of Aaron Eckhart’s character in “Thank You For Smoking,” a film about a tobacco lobbyist who can argue for either side of any argument because he is good at persuasion. The situation is similar — people have the facts and know that smoking is dangerous and causes lung cancer, but they still smoke anyway. The same goes for high-fructose corn syrup — even given all the facts, they will not stop everyone from consuming the ingredient. So should the CRA still be worried?

Would a simple name change salvage the image of corn syrup, or would it be a failed attempt at changing the public’s perception of the ingredient?

Take a look at the CRA’s advertisement that corn syrup is OK and tell me what you think.

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8 Responses to How Sweet It Isn’t

  1. slarsonm says:

    As an advertisement, that corn syrup ad is pretty convincing. Personally, I avoid anything with corn syrup in it because I know how unhealthy it is. But really, so is regular sugar.

    I think the company did a good job on that advertisement, especially if it changes its name to “corn sugar.” Syrup is a word that drives consumers away because of the sticky, globbiness associated with “syrup.” But sugar is okay for us, right?

    As obesity as a societal problem continues to increase, we can blame it on food intake ignorance. Most people don’t read the labels anyway, and anything that says “natural” on it is bound to be healthy. I think that’s kind of the direction the corn syrup people are trying to take. “Corn sugar” sounds more harmless than “corn syrup.”

    I think this marketing campaign will be successful and well received. Consumers can continue eating unhealthy while thinking what they are putting in their bodies “doesn’t have any artificial ingredients, and like sugar, is fine in moderation.” Let’s hope consumers pick up on the moderation part.

    On a Washington Post blog titled, “Is that right? HFCS is simply ‘corn sugar’?” author Jennifer LaRue Huget writes, “It is our job to check labels and watch how much added sugar we put in our mouths. And it is our job to make sure it’s not too much.”

    I agree with that, and it is also our job to be fully educated on what we are really putting into our body. Advertisers will always spin their products so we are inclined to buy them. Their $20 million campaign will probably be successful. But it doesn’t matter what the name is, corn syrup is unhealthy for us. And until we recognize that, people will still eat it, thus continuing to make the company money.

  2. bajohn10 says:

    I too was shocked by these commercials that stated high fructose corn syrup is acceptable “in moderation.” My first reaction was embarrassment — embarrassment that the PR professionals behind this campaign actually appear to be “spin doctors.”

    As a PR assistant for a local personal training studio, I have learned a lot about nutrition and health. In my blogs for the business, ingredients like corn syrup often come up as contributors to obesity and other diseases. I believe it is a true disservice for PR professionals to defend this message.

    I agree that we must take a neutral approach to the clients we represent, however I believe this message is misleading. A better approach would have been to highlight a product that uses corn syrup in a healthy proportion and still tastes great. This would at least eliminate the products’ that “claim” they are kid friendly, yet disguise the large amounts of syrup that they use.

    • kdaoust says:

      Let’s be honest: Nearly everything you consume is, to put it in your own words, a “contributor to obesity”. For you to say that it is “a true disservice for PR professionals to defend this [corn syrup] message”, is like saying every commercial for any type of food or drink is a disservice to society.

      For example, take Shamrock Farms dairy commercials promoting their milk. Guess what? Just like corn syrup, if drink an excessive amount of milk over the course of your lifetime and you’ll get fat and develop other problems! With all the enzymes destroyed during the pasteurization process, your body has a harder time digesting the milk. Because the pancreas cannot always produce these enzymes itself, the pancreas becomes over-worked and over-stressed, causing diabetes and other diseases.

      Or how about those beer and liquor commercials? We all know the effects of alcohol when it is abused. Liver failure, cardiovascular disease, cancer…
      Are the people who came up with the Dos Equis ‘Most Interesting Man In The World’ campaign doing a “disservice” to society because their product, when consumed in excess, has negative health effects?

      As long as we’re talking about this, how about too much butter? Meat? Gatorade? Fruit? Pasta? Any of these things, when eaten in excessive amounts can cause high-cholesterol, clogged arteries, heart failure, diabetes, weight gain…The list goes on.

      The truth is, in moderation, things like fat, sugar, corn syrup, sodium aren’t going to cause you to keel over. It’s your over-consumption of these things that causes these health problems. All nutrition facts are readily available on the product, so one can only blame themselves for their over-consumption.

      You say a “better approach would have been to highlight a product that uses corn syrup in a healthy proportion.” Well, Hawaiian Punch (close enough to what we saw on the commercial, right?) has about 20 grams of sugar for 3.78 L of the drink. Well, that’s not that much if you have a glass are two. I wouldn’t recommend drinking the whole gallon in a sitting, but hey, your choice.

      The PR pros who made this message are, in my opinion, SMART. They are not “spinning” corn syrup…they are literally just explaining the age old motto of “everything in moderation”. So unless you are going to take the stance that ‘every commercial that promotes anything that in excess can cause health problems’, is a disservice, I don’t think it’s fair to knock the PR people who came up with the Corn Syrup ads as being “spin doctors”.

  3. hdfulton says:

    Well, the PR people at the CRA are doing their jobs — that’s the least we can say. I’m no expert on corn syrup (sugar), but my initial take on the subject leads me to believe it’s a misunderstood product.

    According to the Mayo Clinic, the evidence about whether moderate consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has a direct affect on obesity is inconclusive. (

    I personally believe that people today leap before they look when it comes to health trends. An article from The Guardian says that high-fructose corn syrup is the new trans-fat in America and more and more companies are pulling it out of their products because people are under the impression that it can kill you. (

    Of course, this is coming from the same population that ingests countless burger upon burger and wonders why they gain weight.

    I feel sorry for the CRA and hope their PR team continues to put out ads as PSAs that clear up the corn confusion.

  4. srmccab1 says:

    Slarsonm, I am in total agreement with you argument that it is up to us, as consumers, to be conscious and educate ourselves on what we eat. Ultimately, we have a choice of whether we want to purchase something that contains “corn sugar” or real sugar. And with the rise of Internet blogs and health conscious websites there is plenty of information to point us in the right direction. Like you said, companies are always going to spin their product, it’s up to us to set it straight. When I first read this post, I immediately thought other unhealthy products that are advertised and promoted to convince the consumer otherwise. For example, diet pills like that claim that they contain “natural ingredients”. This it seem like these pills are harmless when in actuality they can be very dangerous. But at the end of the day we are the ones choosing to purchase these products. So in the end, I don’t think that changing the name to “corn sugar” will do much good. People who are educated on corn syrups effects and are already avoiding it won’t be fooled by the marketing ploy.

  5. shuscher says:

    Whether corn syrup is terrible for you or it’s fine in moderation, I think the CRA is doing what it should in the face of opposition. The CRA is providing facts that corn syrup is similar to sugar in many respects and like a lot of products, moderation is key. I don’t think the CRA is putting a spin on anything if the truth is being told.

    Is the advertisement one-sided? Sure. While the one mother seems educated on why corn syrup isn’t so bad, the other can’t even form a sentence as to why it’s bad for you. However, it’s not different from any other advertisement and I don’t think the commercial is unethical.

    The CRA isn’t lying, it’s doing its job: turning the negative thoughts associated with HFCS in the other direction.

  6. alervin says:

    It did remind of the character in “Thank You For Smoking.” They are leading a good PR campaign in trying to change the image of corn syrup to be more socially accepted, but is it the right thing to do? With all of the facts outlined in this post about how it can harm you, why would somebody encourage others to consume this product?

    I agree with an earlier assessment that calls the creators of this campaign “spin doctors.” High fructose corn syrup is not healthy, and consumers shouldn’t be led to believe that it is. I work with a holistic healing marketing company and there are plenty of natural products that can take it’s place. Although I agree that consumers DO need to be responsible for their own purchasing decisions and actions, these commercials are misleading.

  7. pperryve says:

    I agree that this is very similar to the situation that America has been dealing with for over 50 years with the tobacco industry. It is a fact of our world; things get introduced into the marketplace, they become the new “it” thing-enter the fad-, then we decide its about time to do some research on this wildly popular item, and-oh guess what? Surprise, surprise, it causes cancer!

    I think there is definitely a great place for PR in this equation, whether it be persuading or dissuading Americans to purchase the product. However, I believe that the place for morality in the situation is minimal. If you believe that as a PR practitioner you are not lying- you are simply “spinning” the facts- then why worry about it. That is as long as you believe that we do in fact live in a nation where people are intelligent enough to decide for themselves what’s good for them.

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