Word of Mouth

Pouring on the high-fructose irony

“It’s made from corn. It doesn’t have artificial ingredients. Like sugar, it’s fine in moderation.”

This from a new TV ad campaign extolling the virtues and relative safety of high-fructose corn syrup. One can only presume that members of the Lard Council must be licking their fatty chops in anticipation of launching a similar defense.

The ads are, of course, sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association. So it’s tempting to compare them to other mealtime propaganda campaigns, like the dairy association pushing three glasses of milk every day, or food production organizations being a little too influential on the USDA food pyramid -- but even those dubious distinctions are better than this. We need calcium, and milk is one source; we need the protein, carbs and fat that the pyramid suggests, though perhaps not in those quantities or ratios. But high-fructose corn syrup? We don’t need that. More to the point, we’d all be a lot better off never ingesting it at all.

Let’s stipulate for a moment that the ads themselves are a complete joke—the sweetened equivalent of a cigarette company's ad claiming that their tobacco is organic and American-grown, or an opium campaign picturing a family of four gamboling through a field of poppies and then sharing a hookah. Beyond that, there’s no logic at work here. These ads are based on a complete falsehood: that there’s no rational attack that can be made on high-fructose corn syrup, and that Americans just think it’s bad because we’ve been told it is.

Oddly, this approach suggests that we’re not only ill-informed, but gullible as hell. (Way to butter up the consumer.) But the Corn Refiners Association underestimates the nutritional zeitgeist. The reasons behind just why high-fructose corn syrup is bad for us are fairly well known: take your pick from the obesity epidemic to possible linkages to both diabetes and heart disease. And then there’s the simple fact that the shit just ain’t good for you—thus their own caveat that it be consumed “in moderation.”

But moderation is one of the things that’s a problem with high-fructose corn syrup; it’s in almost everything. Bread. Ketchup. Juices. Cereal. Soda. Cough syrup. Crackers. Pretty much anything that’s ready to eat out of a box or can. Finding those things in the average American cabinet without high-fructose corn syrup would take far more time than finding those that do.

So yes, it’s bad for you. Lots of things are. We know this. Does that mean that we stop consuming bad-for-us stuff? Of course not. The continued existence of Twinkies pretty much proves this. The very presence of these ads, though, seems to suggest that someone at the Corn Refiners Association is getting a little antsy—like maybe enough Americans are saying no to high-fructose corn syrup that a seductive propaganda campaign like this one is worth the outlay of money.

Which, of course, is exactly what these ads are designed to combat: people, parents, and kids nutritionally doing the right thing. -- Teague Bohlen

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun