ConAgra has reverted back to using high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in its Hunt’s ketchup less than two years after replacing the much-maligned sweetener with sugar.
A spokeswoman told FoodNavigator-USA that the recipe change - implemented in spring 2010 to address "consumer concerns" about HFCS - had not in fact proved a big hit with shoppers, although ConAgra has retained a HFCS-free variant in its range.
“Overall, consumer demand for the HFCS-free ketchup was not as strong as expected”, she said.
“We made a recent ingredient change to Hunt’s Ketchup, but will continue offering our 100% natural line that contains table sugar instead of HFCS. Three 100% natural SKUs (20oz, 28oz, and 62oz) will continue to be offered in a wide variety of retailers.”
A new graphic
Reformulated products containing HFCS are being rolled out this month and next, she revealed: “The [reformulated] ketchup will feature a different graphic on the label, so people will know it’s different than previous versions.
“We actually made a few other changes to the ingredients (we lowered the sodium), so did not go back to the previous formula. We remain committed to making great-tasting, high quality ketchup with no preservatives or artificial flavors at a great value.”
In direct response to consumer demand
The 100% Natural HFCS-free ketchup was launched in spring 2010 boasting five ingredients: Tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, salt and other seasonings “with no high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients or preservatives”.
While other brands have attempted to address negative perceptions about HFCS by introducing HFCS-free variants rather than reformulating core products (Heinz has a HFCS-free Simply Heinz ketchup line) ConAgra went the whole hog in 2010, removing HFCS from “every bottle of our ketchup products”.
The move, said brand manager Ryan Toreson at the time, was “in direct response to consumer demand” (he cited a 2009 HealthFocus Trend Report suggesting that a rising number of consumers was concerned about HFCS).
Meanwhile, the new recipe tasted just as good as the old one, he claimed.
“Even with the new recipe, we have maintained the same great tangy, sweet taste that Hunt's has always had and that consumers tell us they prefer."
‘All-natural’ sugar v ‘man-made’ HFCS??
The row about the merits of HFCS vs cane/beet sugar intensified this week as the FDA rejected a petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to change the GRAS affirmation for HFCS and allow firms to use 'corn sugar' as an alternate name on pack.
The CRA also traded insults with The Sugar Association over the latter’s recent press release entitled: ‘Enough Is Enough: There’s Only One Sugar… And It’s Not High-Fructose Corn Syrup.’
The Sugar Association, which now precedes all references to sugar with the phrase ‘all-natural’ in a bid to distinguish it from ‘man-made’ HFCS, accused the CRA of overlooking "important differences" between sucrose and HFCS.
The CRA in turn accused the Sugar Association of ignoring respected organizations including the American Medical Association, which says the body does not recognize the difference between HFCS and sucrose (table sugar).
What's in a name?
The two parties are currently embroiled in a high-profile legal dispute, which began in 2010 when the CRA petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recognize the 'corn sugar' name.
This was on the grounds that the name HFCS had led many consumers to believe – erroneously – that the corn-based sweetener contained significantly more calories and more fructose than sucrose, said the CRA.
It then followed up with a high-profile media campaign promoting ‘corn sugar’.
However, the move was strongly opposed by sugar refiners and farmers who filed a lawsuit against top corn refiners last year accusing them of deceiving the public. They also argued that the CRA should have waited until the FDA responded to its petition before launching its campaign.
What do consumers think?
Consumer surveys consistently suggest some consumers are trying to avoid HFCS, although the percentage of shoppers that are concerned about it drops dramatically when pollsters use unprompted questions.
For example, an International Food Information Council survey conducted last month suggested that 44% of US adults are seeking to avoid or limit HFCS intakes. However, a survey conducted by Mintel this time last year found that just 4% said they avoided HFCS unprompted.
Click here to read about the CRA petition.