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The high-fructose corn syrup bloggers: A symptom of a larger problem?

Almost exactly one year after the Nestle Family bloggers, we now have the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) bloggers, otherwise known as the "Corn Sugar" bloggers (note: HFCS is known as glucose/fructose in Canada). Like Nestle a year ago, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) invited a bunch of bloggers to listen to their one-sided version of the story in the hopes that they would help spread the gospel on their blogs.

Unfortunately, I didn't hear about the HFCS blog tour webinar event (compensated with Walmart gift certificates...a great place to buy HFCS-laden products) until after it happened. If I had heard about it before the event, I would probably have written an open letter to the bloggers, like I did last year, encouraging them to be cautious about the types of associations they make, to ask tough questions, and to not take everything they hear at face value. Because it should be obvious (although evidently it isn't to everyone), that when an organization with a vested interest offers you gifts in return for listening to their "experts", you are probably only getting one side of a complicated story. Just like a few minutes on Google should have told anyone doing research on Nestle that it is a controversial company, a few minutes on Google would also have revealed that high fructose corn syrup is a controversial issue.

Since I didn't hear about the "Corn Sugar" event until it had already happened, I didn't feel there was any rush to post about it. I knew that some very strong and smart voices were already writing about it (see Jessica Gottlieb, Liz from Mom101, Mir at WorkItMom, Kristin at Our Ordinary Life, Heather at Rookie Moms, Christine at Boston Mamas, and Karen from Notes from the Cookie Jar). Since I was busy with other commitments much of the week, I decided to wait a few days, read a bit, research a bit and gather my thoughts before joining the borg posting.

Is high-fructose corn syrup unhealthy?

At the centre of this discussion is the question of whether high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you. Or, more accurately, whether it is better or worse for you than other types of sugar. The Corn Refinfers were trying to convince mom bloggers that high fructose corn syrup is no worse than regular sugar and they were also trying to position it as the "natural" sugar option (versus plain old regular sugar). While high-fructose corn syrup may be made from a natural ingredient (corn), there is nothing natural about the highly processed end product that the Corn Refiners now want to call "corn sugar". Just like chicken nuggets are nothing like chicken, high-fructose corn syrup is nothing like corn.

There seems to be some debate about whether HFCS is more likely to contribute to obesity than other sugars. The corn refiners were trying to convince people that it doesn't whereas other people believe that it may. To be fair, the research that claims it causes obesity is disputed by renowned food researchers. That said, I'm not ready to jump on the HFCS is wonderful bandwagon.

According to Michael Pollan, in his book Food Rules, we should avoid products that contain HFCS:
Not because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is any worse for you than sugar, but because it is, like many of the other unfamiliar ingredients in packaged foods, a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed. Also, high-fructose corn syrup is being added to hundreds of foods that have not traditionally been sweetened - breads, condiments, and many snack foods - so if you avoid products that contain it, you will cut down on your sugar intake.

This makes a lot of sense. As many of my readers know, we just got back from spending the summer in Germany, where I lost 20 pounds. I was moderately more active, but now that I reflect on it I think the primary factor in my weight loss is the fact that in Germany not every food under the sun has sugar of some sort, primarily HFCS, added to it. Here in Canada I have to search for no-sugar-added bread, whereas in Germany no-sugar-added is more likely to be the default. I ate lots of sweets while in Germany, but they were not sickeningly sweet like they are here and I also didn't have to worry about my non-sweets (like bread) being sweetened. Quite simply, in North America, unless you are eating a whole foods only diet, you are probably ingesting more sugars that you should be and those are probably primarily HFCS.

Beyond the nutritional issues, there are also many environmental and financial concerns with the way that corn is produced and subsidized in the United States, a situation that is exacerbated and facilitated through the overuse of HFCS.

So whether HFCS contributes to obesity more than other sugars is really only one of many problems with high fructose corn syrup. I don't believe that you are poisoning your child if you feed them food with HFCS every once in a while, but I do think that HFCS is generally a problem and is something that bloggers should be wary about promoting.

Selling our social capital

I have to admit that I am continually frustrated when I see bloggers accepting cash or gifts in return for promoting unhealthy or unethical products, especially when they use the words right out of the promotional materials and pretend that it is their authentic voice on the issue. It frustrates me that they simply pass along what they have been given, without truly considering what they think of it themselves or without looking into or reporting on the other side of the story. I will admit that there are issues I am uneducated about. But I would not put up a one-sided blog post about those issues without first doing research on the other side of the story.

I also continue to be frustrated by the fact that unhealthy and unethical products are buying their way into blogging conferences as sponsors. Personally, I think that blog conferences should be sponsored by companies that can contribute something to bloggers and blogging, not by companies that want to use bloggers to shill their crap. I've criticized BlogHer before for accepting Nestle and other undesirable companies as sponsors and I was disappointed to learn that one of the sponsors of the Type-A-Mom Conference was the Corn Refiners Association (i.e. the people who want to tell you that "Corn Sugar" is great).

I asked Kelby Carr (@typeamom), the founder and organizer of the Type-A-Mom Conference about why she would accept a sponsor like the Corn Refiners. Here is what she had to say:
I am a foodie myself, and I certainly understand there are concerns. There were a couple things that were deciding factors in allowing them to sponsor. The main factor was that they expressed an interest in coming to Type-A Mom to hear moms' concerns, to listen, and not to pitch attendees. It seemed like an opportunity for parents to have those concerns heard face to face by the association. The second factor was that my conference, and many others, have sponsors who use sugars. It was a matter of fairness. I would love to have all organic/whole foods companies as food sponsors, but it takes tens of thousands of dollars above and beyond registration fees to put on the conference. The fact of the matter is that we pitched every company that falls into that category that we could think of, and in most cases got no response.

Bottom line, though, this wasn't about money because their sponsorship was the lowest level available. I had a lengthy phone conversation with the marketer with the association, and in fact encouraged her to just attend and not sponsor. She felt that would be a bit disingenuous and also said they wanted to show financial support for the mom blogging community. What I agreed to, finally, was the lowest level of sponsorship. They placed a water bottle into gift bags (easy enough to discard), and they got a logo on the site.

I think Kelby is a smart woman, as are the founders of BlogHer. I don't think they are likely to be easily swayed by the companies that they accept as sponsors. However, I do still question their judgment in accepting those types of sponsors because I don't think they realize (or perhaps they do) how easily their attendees are sometimes swayed. As I reflect on the issue with blog conference sponsors (and blog tours and blogger trips), I think the biggest problem I have is that there are obviously too many people attending these events who are willing to take a couple of freebies and a bit of information and accept that it is the truth. Are a lot of bloggers missing critical thinking skills or morals or do they discard them when money, free stuff, free trips and lower blog conference prices are offered to them? I realize that that sounds very pejorative and it isn't intended that way, but I am truly baffled by the willingness of bloggers to promote so many things with so few questions. I wonder if it would be easier to affect change in that community if I could get inside their brains, but somehow it seems that I can't.

It is frustrating.

I'm not sure what else to say about it right now.
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Reader Comments (102)

For Cynthia:
Cynthia, are you still interested in the Cornsweet 90 issue and the fructose content of foods and beverages?
Please contact me at: L_Bonvie@yahoo.com
Thanks, Linda

March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Bonvie

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