High fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive sweetener made from highly processed corn that has become an almost ubiquitous ingredient in packaged processed foods, has been getting some bad press of late.
Some scientists and food experts, including the well-regarded sustainable food advocate Marion Nestle, have argued that high fructose corn syrup is really no worse, nutritionally speaking, than traditional refined table sugar, which is certainly no health food. But mounting evidence suggests that subtle chemical differences between the two sweetners might cause HFCS to affect the body differently than regular sugar, in potentially harmful ways.
HCFS Links to Diabetes and Obesity
A 2007 Rutgers University study linked HFCS in soda to diabetes. There was the revelation in 2008 that some brands of HFCS contained traces of mercury. Then a Princeton study, published just this March, connected high fructose corn syrup consumption to obesity in rats.
As a result of all the bad publicity associated with these scientific findings, more than 50% of Americans now believe high fructose corn syrup may pose a health hazard. Sales of high fructose corn syrup have plummeted as manufacturers scramble to replace HFCS with familiar, old-fashioned table sugar.
So last month, the Corn Refiners Association, a trade organization that lobbies the U.S. government on behalf of corn processors, launched a campaign to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar.
The CRA issued a press release. They launched a corn sugar website. They contacted major media organizations. They sent a petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, lobbying the government to allow HFCS to be listed on food labels as corn sugar.
“Sweet” Talk for Mommybloggers
And, perhaps aware that American women control 85% of U.S. household spending, the Corn Refiners Association also reached out to mommybloggers.
Specifically, the CRA approached bloggers who write compensated product reviews for MomCentral, a targeted social media marketing organization whose clients include such corporate giants as Unilever, Bayer, and Procter and Gamble.
MomCentral, which encourages certain member bloggers to write product reviews on their own blogs in exchange for gifts and discounts, has run into controversy before for paid social media marketing campaigns that sometimes blur the line between honest review and paid advertisement. In fact, the pharmaceutical company Bayer recieved an official warning from the FDA over misleading social media marketing events it organized with MomCentral to promote the contraceptive device, Mirena.
For the Corn Refiners Association, MomCentral arranged a webinar for blogger members, where attendees were apparently treated to a CRA sponsored presentation of evidence that high fructose corn syrup, a.k.a. “corn sugar,” and traditional table sugar are nutritionally equivalent and affect the body in exactly the same way. The bloggers were then paid, with Walmart gift certificates, to write about what they had learned from the CRA.
A Marketing Ploy Backfires
If the Corn Refiners Association was expecting this ploy to result in a successful pro-corn-sugar viral marketing campaign that would spread like wildfire among unquestioning women bloggers eager to justify their children’s soda and candy habits, then the CRA drastically underestimated their target audience.
The blogger backlash against the CRA / MomCentral corn sugar marketing campaign was swift and severe. Prominent members of the parent blog community, including Mom-101′s Liz Gumbinner, Work It Mom’s Mir Kamin, and Christine Koh of Boston Mamas, came out strongly against the marketing campaign, calling the CRA messaging misleading and taking the bloggers who repeated CRA’s assertions uncritically to task for failing to do their own research on high fructose corn syrup to present more balanced reviews.
Word of the controversy soon moved beyond the parenting blogosphere, as the corn syrup public relations dustup garnered attention at both Slashfood and BNET, where writers strongly criticized the CRA’s ham-handed outreach failure.
The Corn Refiners Association definitely generated some publicity for “corn sugar” with their parenting blogger outreach program — just not, I think, the sort their PR department intended.
Full disclosure: Jaelithe Judy has never been paid, in gift certificates or otherwise, by the Corn Refiners Association or MomCentral, but she is good friends with several parents who blog, and works with Liz Gumbinner and Mir Kamin at Cool Mom Picks.
Photo by Sanjay Acharya. Used under Creative Commons license.