White is a biochemist who is a consultant for the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and president of White Technical Research, and has published widely on nutritive sweeteners.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the recent IFT expo in New Orleans, he noted that the current controversy around HFCS was sparked in 2004 when Dr Barry Popkin, along with Dr George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, published a widely read and much-quoted study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It suggested a link between obesity and the rise in HFCS consumption – but Popkin has since said that this speculation was wrong.
White said: “The battle’s over from a scientific standpoint, but consumers don’t necessarily know that. We are trying to educate manufacturers that the battle’s over and there’s no need to respond to this very small consumer base.”
In a recent poll carried out by market research organization Mintel, only four percent of those questioned mentioned HFCS when asked whether there were specific foods, beverages or ingredients they were trying to avoid or consume less often. White claims that responses to this kind of unaided question are more telling of consumer behavior than asking directly about HFCS.
“If you ask about high fructose corn syrup a lot of people say they are looking for it,” he said. “Market research says there’s a very small number of people who are concerned about high fructose corn syrup…However, they are large in internet presence.”
The food and beverage industry began to switch to HFCS as a cheaper alternative to sucrose in the 1980s. It is still an ingredient that significantly reduces cost for manufacturers – at about half the price of sugar – but White suggested that as well as increasing costs, switching to sugar could also raise sanitation issues if manufacturers are not aware of the different risks associated with sucrose and HFCS.
“An environment of monosaccharides is less hospitable to growth of microorganisms,” he said. “…Microbes grow more readily in liquid sugar than in high fructose corn syrup.”
He added that although the battle over a possible link between HFCS and obesity has wound down among scientists, it has shifted to fructose and all fructose-containing ingredients.
“They have given fruits and veggies a free pass, which they should,” he said. “But I think it is misplaced because the experimentation is so highly exaggerated.”
Meanwhile, there is strong momentum behind the ‘no-HFCS’ trend. According to Datamonitor statistics, one in 50 new products launched in the United States last year carried the claim, compared to one in 500 in 2006.
“It’s a shame. Manufacturers are turning back the clock 30 or 40 years,” White said.