While a number of ingredients have done the perp walk over the years, two are in the front of the criminal lineup right now. Both salt and high-fructose corn syrup plead innocent on the basis of insufficient evidence.
It's hard to find a nutrition professional who has not counseled people to decrease their intake of sodium. The American Heart Assn., the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National High Blood Pressure Education Program and a dozen other groups – plus our own USDA -- all insist healthy people can reduce their risk of heart disease or stroke by eating less than 2,400mg of sodium. Or is it 1,500mg? Either figure is quite a cut from the 4,000 to 6,000 mg we currently ingest on a daily basis.
One driving force behind the antisodium campaign has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), headed by Michael Jacobson. The Washington-based organization is well-known for its sensationalist attacks on foods and food ingredients.
After decades of research and thousands of studies, science has not been able to establish a definitive connection between intake of dietary sodium by healthy persons and increased disease risk. Emphasis on healthy persons. Most dispassionate research seems to indicate that if you have high blood pressure, sodium can make it worse; but if you aren't hypertensive, salt won't give you high blood pressure.
As for high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener is a victim of bad science, its own name and its own popularity. Adding to the problem is an uncharacteristic caving-in by food processors, who think they can make marketing hay by proclaiming HFCS has been removed from their products.
The bap rap for HFCS apparently started in March 2004, when researchers George Bray of Louisiana State University and Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina submitted the equivalent of a letter to the editor to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Although their research was not peer reviewed, they postulated rising amounts of fructose in the diet, among them foods and beverages containing HFCS, might play a role in America's rising obesity epidemic.
The connection between high amounts of fructose and obesity is sketchy at best. And, ironically, high-fructose corn syrup is not high in fructose – it's about the same as sugar, which is 50 percent fructose. Most HFCS varies from 45 percent to 55 percent fructose. But the sweetener is in everything, from soda to teriyaki sauce to ketchup. Even level-headed consumers were starting to wonder if there is some conspiracy.
"Many food critics, including Michael Jacobson [head of CSPI], Walter Willett [chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health] and even Marion Nestle, author and professor [from] New York University, agree there is no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar and have been very public in their comments," says Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association. "They all agree it is another form of sugar – one made from corn. As for Popkin, he has since publicly retracted his theory."
So does HFCS contribute to obesity? The unvarnished answer is: no more and no less than sugar.
But the stigma remains, perhaps because of the chemical-sounding name and its ubiquity. On the first issue, CRA in 2010 petitioned the FDA to allow manufacturers the option of using "corn sugar" as an alternative ingredient name for high-fructose corn syrup. "The term 'corn sugar' succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from — corn," Erickson said at the time.
However, traditional sugar refiners objected. The issue is pending with the FDA and courts.
On the second issue, for better or worse, HFCS is beginning to disappear from some food products. A number of food marketers started replacing HFCS in their formulations with "real" sugar – with no improvement in calorie or nutritional content. They claim they're just being responsive to consumers and that sales of the reformulated products are healthy.
CRA cites Nielsen data that "brands that are marketing 'HFCS-free' as a point of differentiation are not seeing increases in sales as a result."
And the corn refiners commissioned a market research firm to see what consumers think. "Our research with thousands of consumers found that only 4 percent are reducing or avoiding HFCS, which indicates a major gap between what people say and what they really do," says David Lockwood, senior analyst with Mintel Research Consultancy. He suggests "food and beverage marketers … develop sweetener strategies that focus on overall nutrition rather than singling out specific ingredients."
SOLUTION: The battle of "our scientific evidence vs. your scientific evidence" probably will go on forever.
An increasing number of companies think the solution is to forgo the questionable ingredients. They're "simply" reducing the number of ingredients on their labels -- "simple" being the key word. Simply Heinz Ketchup ("It's grown, not made") replaces the HFCS without pointing that out. (Competitor Hunt's, on the other hand, trumpets "no high-fructose corn syrup.") Other recent launches include Pillsbury Simply biscuits and Stater Bros. Simple Living cereals.
Campbell Soup made sodium reduction its main marketing message for the past couple of years. But when sales turned as lackluster as its soups, the company relented, even changing its CEO – although not entirely over this issue. New CEO Denise Morrison put it in perspective, saying too much R&D effort had been put in sodium reduction and not enough elsewhere. And while some "healthy" soups would remain low-sodium, for those consumers who care, other soups would get most of their salt back.
"Sodium plays a critical role in food safety and in formulation," adds IFT's Bowman. "There are some things we can do and some things we can't."
So choose wisely. Know your target audience. If they want reduced sodium, there are plenty of replacement ingredients out there. But, obviously, check out what they do to your product's flavor.
Also consider the bigger issue of chemical-sounding ingredients or just too many ingredients. Many processors are finding less (ingredients) is more (sales). Haagen-Dazs Five ice creams consist of just five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs and whichever flavor is used. There's also ACH/Fleischmann's Simply Homemade bread mixes; Kellogg's Simple Eggo Waffles ("no preservatives, artificial flavors or colors"); Frito-Lay/Miss Vickie's Simply Sea Salt potato chips ("All natural … nothing artificial, and of course, zero grams trans fat").