HFCS Ad Analysis: Dieticians Dissed, Media Literacy Mandatory

When I sounded off in HFCS Corn Wars about the ‘artificial sweetness’ of the ubiquitous HFCS ads, I promised I’d have our own nutrition correspondent, Rebecca Scritchfield weigh in with her professional analysis, but first…you MUST see BlogHer Gena Haskett’s insightful piece on the way we should consume advertising.

It’s straightforward, erudite, balanced, and oh, so wise…Couldn’t have said it better myself! And the readers commenting are equally sharp. Take a peek.

I also want to shine the media literacy spotlight on the pithy conversational exchange between “Satoru, CrabbyMan and SkokieGuy” (sounds like anime!) on The Consumerist. Some of it is hilarious, and all of it is a reminder that whether we consume media or munchies it is all filtered through “the experts” in need of deconstructing studies themselves! (Who’s funding the data, how big is the sample size, etc.)

There are some brillliant snippets of Web 2.0 media literacy worthy of ‘point/counterpoint’ deconstruction that I’d like to share.

While I’m at it, I’d like to point you to the King Corn site and documentary, which I bought at the Champions for Change state health conference and will be screening in house party format, in addition to Two Angry Moms and others in our Shaping Youth fall film fest for parent-youth education!

As the pbs independent lens features and Rotten Tomatoes reviews, King Corn is about “two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation,”  and let me tell you, it’s an eye-opener.

(HINT! Right now you should be thinking, ‘says who? Amy Jussel? Shaping Youth? What’s your vested interest? Why should I care what you think?)

That’s right, folks…As you’ll see in my own media literacy phraseology, I fall into the ‘stakeholders’ tier. Remember, that’s where my opinions belong…no more, no less.

Here’s the movie blurb and trailer: (below)

Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday said, “It should be required viewing before going into a supermarket, McDonald’s or your very own refrigerator.”

(Again, right now you should be saying, ‘hmn, interesting that she pulled a positive review, are there any negative ones?)

Check out the tonalities and persuasive techniques here: First, ‘SkokieGuy’ lands his argument in matter of fact simplicity, with links supporting his convictions for the ‘whys’ HFCS is a menace in our food supply:

SkokieGuy at 11:54 AM on 09/08/08 on The Consumerist

“Our government has price controls on domestic sugar (to keep prices high) and places caps on imported sugar. This forced food manufacturers to look for lower cost substitutes, which just happen to be grown right here in the USA.[www.cato.org] …Because the body does not respond chemical to HFCS in the same was as sugar and related substances, there is increasing data to suggest that HFCS is a significant factor in the rise in obesity and diabetes rates in our country.[www.wnbc.com]”

Crabbyman6 at 12:16 PM on 09/08/08  Chimes in:

…Just read a good article on this. Basically HFCS doesn’t trigger insulin and leptin release because the enzyme is designed for glucose not fructose, so you don’t fee sated and therefore will eat more food while intaking the same amount of sugar calories because you haven’t triggered the cascade. [www.naturalnews.com]

Satoru at 12:28 PM on 09/08/08  Lobs a credibility inquiry with a tone of superiority:

@crabbyman6: Posting something from ‘naturalnews.com’ does not really lend much credibility to your argument. Please note that if you actually read the studies quoted in the article you will see: [www.ajcn.org] Conclusion: There was no evidence that commercial cola beverages sweetened with either sucrose or HFCS have significantly different effects on hunger, satiety, or short-term energy intakes…”

SkokieGuy at 12:51 PM on 09/08/08 Dismisses the study on multiple levels:

“@satoru: Well let’s look at the study you provide:  [www.ajcn.org] (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)

First of all, it included a vast sampling of 37 people, which when split into 5 groups, resulting in 7.4 (!) people per group. Not a significant sampling, huh?

Second, the data was mostly self-reported (“perceived sweetness, hunger and satiety profiles, or energy intakes at lunch”). No analysis of insulin, leptin or other biochemical markers was included.

Third, the study was (surprise) supported by a grant from the American Beverage Association, by the Corn Refiners Association, and by fellowship T32 DE07132 from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (to PM).

Alternate health sites (like naturalnews.com) exist because most mainstream avenues for receiving health information and our government regulatory bodies have been corrupted by industry influences and can’t be trusted.”

Yowza. Could I put in a plea for this SkokieGuy to join Shaping Youth’s consortium of media mental floss to get people to see things clearer when it comes to the ‘big picture’ of undercurrents, motivations, and persuasive techniques working at cross-purposes in kids’ health?

He’s definitely got some ‘dig deeper’ investigative chops…

To wrap up, as a gazillion comments spill forth ranging from the “phallic distraction of the popsicle” in the HFCS ad to the absurdity of taking a ‘holier than thou’ approach on either side of the HFCS debate, SkokieGuy pops back in with level-headed balance advocating for clarity and choice:

SkokieGuy at 01:05 PM on 09/08/08 Adds a reminder and a challenge:

“And let us not forget that virtually all corn grown in the USA is genetically modfied. Since no labelling is required, we are ingesting a staggering amount of GMO products, via the HFCS that is in virtually all prepared foods.

My take on our food supply, be it HFCS, irradiating food, GMO organisms, cloned milk or beef, is that the government allow consumers to make their own decisions and require labelling, so we can make a choice about what we consume.

I remain amused and disturbed that a significant number of consumerist readers seem to advocate against consumer choice.”

This is why I LOVE Web 2.0 sparking lively discourse in the Wellsphere of conversation about health and well-being. These critical thinking skills are worthy of parent-child integration on ANY topic… food, fashion, or consumption of the trend du’ jour…

It’s about media literacy over limitation, logic over lingo…and ADDING to the age of conversation to build on our collective knowledge!

So getting back to Gena Haskett’s excellent post, let’s review the HFCS ads using Media Literacy 101: (See our handy dandy tipsheet by yours truly, Amy Jussel & Frank Baker of Media Literacy Clearinghouse in the Common Sense Media resources marked Talking to Kids About Junk Food Advertising)

1.) Start With Your Pertinent Questions and Identify Your Primary Sources

Gena started with what ran through her own mind viewing the HFCS commercials:

  • ·    Is it a natural product? Is eating HFCS harmful?
  • ·    Why are they doing this now? HFCS has been on the market since the 1970s.
  • ·    How do I eat HFCS products in moderation?

2.) Search Reliable, Authoritative Secondary Sources

In this case, Gena moved beyond the primary site to seek info to evaluate, support or refute the claims and statements, like nutritionists, dietitians, scientists and such. Here’s her handful of data nuggets:

3.) Follow Up With Stakeholders, Varying Opinions on the Topic

Gena calls this the “everybody into the pool” approach, which I love. It connotes everything from sophisticated levels of blogosphere banter to a lone voice raising a hand with a poignant personal story. (diabetics, food allergies, low carb crusaders, etc.)

Here are her examples of stakeholders, and a few of my own…

“I am reading an article from Lazslo Pentek, a Beekeeper who has an opinion about HFCS. Ed Brayton over at Scienceblogs on Government Subsidized Obesity, Debra at The Ethicurean on this specific ad campaign, The Organic Consumers Association article on Corn, Used and Abused.

I’m checking in with food bloggers like The Slow Cook who has thoughts about the FDA switch of allowing HFCS to be called natural when it initially said it was not.  Wannabegreen did a count of the number of  HFCS items in the cupboard. Karina’s Kitchen writes about Sugar Blues and alternatives to Sugar. Marion Nestle on-going posts on high fructose corn syrup.”

I’ll add The Accidental Hedonist into this (and her new post, “It’s Water! Now With HFCS!”) as well as the Expatriate’s Kitchen which has an absolutely DON’T MISS Childhood Nutrition Series and of course, our own nutritionist/healthcare blogger, Rebecca, below.

Again, I’m not expecting this level of thoroughness with every ad schpiel deconstruction…but BlogHer’s Gena Haskett (see her multiple blogs here) is near and dear to my heart in the media maven/research realm of unearthing data and overturning rocks to question assumptions and think for yourself!

Her evidentiary quest fits well with ours here at Shaping Youth, so Gena, come guest blog ANY ol’ time, eh? We’d sure love to have you!

Point is: EVERY parent-child-educator needs these media intake skills to be able to snap their brain into critical thinking regardless of the topic…current affairs, elections, food, fun, teen choices, dilemmas, peer pressure, you name it!

It all comes down to evaluation of choices and concious decision making.

I’m sure our friends at Decision Education Foundation will clearly agree…Now, here’s Rebecca Scritchfield’s dietary take on the HFCS debate as a healthcare blogger, sports nutritionist and yes, an ‘expert.’ The commentary accompanying the post on her site is worthy, with dieticians weighing in on the dialogue, and a ‘Balanced Health & Nutrition’ approach.

Do the new High Fructose Corn Syrup ads throw dietitians under the bus?

By Shaping Youth Correspondent Rebecca Scritchfield

I just saw a full page ad in The Washington Post “Registered Dietitians agree that HFCS is the same as table sugar and can be enjoyed in moderation.”

As a communications expert and future dietitian, this bothers me. While the statement is not technically false, it is twisted. I think it uses dietitians as a way to position HFCS as recommended or even healthy and that’s dangerous for the field.

What is “moderation” anyway? It’s subjective. A young, active athlete has a lot more room for “moderation” than a sedentary, overweight 40-year-old female with a family history of diabetes and obesity.

White sugar is refined, just like HFCS. The first thing a dietitian is going to do is ask a person to add healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains to their meals and replace them with junk foods of poor nutrition quality -processed sugary and sweet foods – most of the stuff the CRA is promoting as “enjoy in moderation” foods.

I think this is an excellent “textbook” PR ad. If I had this assignment in grad school, I would use this same approach. I think it does its job to reach those “on the fence” to view HFCS positively “oh, ok fine in moderation”. But it is not good for the reputation of dietitians. It leaves the perception that dietitians are “in bed” with food companies. Perception is reality. Just like HFCS is perceived as unnatural or even poison dietitians could be perceived as thoughtless drones who are afraid to say “eat less” of anything – and that’s just not the case.

Here are some other interesting reads on the issue:

Marion Nestle – What to Eat blog

Serious Eats – the reader comments here indicate what’s going on with HFCS. Strong opinions that it is unnatural and discussion about whether or not it is “different” than other sweeteners.

BlogHer – opinion about how the ads are perceived as insulting – most likely by people who choose to avoid HFCS. So if the campaign goal is to shift some opinion positively toward HFCS, it may be failing.

Ask the dietitians blog – five HFCS facts, including “Reducing your intake of HFCS can help reduce calorie intake which in turn assists in weight management.”

For more insights from Rebecca, visit Balanced Health & Nutrition

About Rebecca: Shaping Youth is proud to have Rebecca Scritchfield as part of our stable of guest editorial bloggers in core areas of expertise we deem integral to children’s health.

Rebecca graduated with degrees in chemisty and nutrition with honors and distinction, and has additional academic training in communications and information technology. She’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, pursuing a graduate degree in communications at The Johns Hopkins University, with an emphasis of coursework in digital technologies and health communication, and is also a guest blogger for the diet and nutrition section of Health Commentary, led by family physician Mike Magee, MD.

Voices in the HFCS Debate

Shaping Youth: HFCS Corn Wars: A Surprise That’s Far From Sweet

HFCS: Junk Food Science: The Science of Sweets

L.A. Times: What’s Making Us Fat? Maybe It’s All That HFCS

WNBC/NYC: Why Is Corn Syrup In So Many Foods?

Mayo Clinic: Why is HFCS So Bad For Me?

Consumerist: Looks Like HFCS Manufacturers Are Getting A Little Nervous

AJCN: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,

Sugars and Satiety: Does the Type of Sweetner Make A Difference?

Newswise: Study By the American Chemical Society Suggests Link Btwn HFCS & Diabetes

The Daily Green: All Natural Junk Food?

Reuters: How Sugar Sneaks Into Your Diet

SF Gate: Sugar Coated; We’re Drowning in HFCS

An Overview of Childhood Obesity Chart

Obesity Threatens A Generation

How Obesity Harms A Child’s Body

Dr. Robyn: How Much Sugar Is In My Child’s Juice?

Dr. Robyn: How Much Sugar Is In My Child’s Food?

Rebecca Scritchfield: One Big Fat Problem: Why the FDA Needs to Require Disclosure of Added Sugars

And, here’s the King Corn movie trailer I promised…



  1. This:
    “…Just read a good article on this. Basically HFCS doesn’t trigger insulin and leptin release because the enzyme is designed for glucose not fructose, so you don’t fee sated and therefore will eat more food while intaking the same amount of sugar calories because you haven’t triggered the cascade.”

    explains SO MUCH.

    Thanks for more good stuff on the evils of HFCS.
    (no puns today) 🙂

  2. Well, that’s part of the push-pull tug-o-war on the mythology and medical reverb. No one has concrete answers it appears, but the one thing we CAN confirm in the health care arena is that there’s a corollary in the rise of obesity and the rise of sugars (all kinds!) in the food chain…

    As for solutions, just read an important stat on prevention from RWJF.org and the Yale Rudd Center that cites a direct return on investment of $5.60 for every $1 spent in prevention…which could keep us from bankrupting the health care system over the long haul..so I’m all for tryin’!


  3. Okay, so AdRants has a wonderful little riff going on in the comments section of their blog, including a basic PR reiteration by the Corn Refiners’ crew…Here’s the link…I don’t know if it’s subscriber based only, but if so…ping me and I’ll reprint the comments here.


  4. Okay, so this YouTube spoof on the HFCS commercials is hilarious in making fun of the propaganda value:


  5. oh, my close to 600 comments on Reddit: Methinks they’ve shot themselves in the foot with this badvertising…


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