As corn stocks ballooned and prices tanked during the 1980s farm crisis, one gleam of good news came from a new corn product – high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In 1984, major soft drink companies replaced colas’ sugar with 100% HFCS, and corn use for the sweetener hit 310 million bu. By 1999, HFCS use was above 550 million bu. and almost even with corn use for fuel ethanol. Since then, however, corn use for HFCS has contracted by 16%. This year, USDA ERS forecasts use at just 485 million bushels.
What happened? The most significant change may be the evolution of the U.S. beverage market, according to Tom Earley, an economist who tracks sweetener issues for Agralytica. “I think most of the decline is not due to an aversion to HFCS but to changes in the markets, as consumers have shifted to bottled waters, energy drinks and less traditional carbonated drinks,” he says.
“Companies like Hunts and Pepsi that made a big deal about shifting to sugar found it didn’t get them a better market share and they shifted back,” he says. “Though there is a part of the population that is anti-HFCS, I don’t think there’s been a big consumer swing [against it].”
Taste is top factor
At the International Food Information Council Foundation, CEO David Schmidt cites IFIC polling that shows taste is still the number-one factor for most consumers’ food choices, followed by price, and then health. “About 20% are focused on the natural, organic food sector, but 80% need information and are up for grabs.
“With the explosion of information sources in the media, with neighbors doing their own blogs, there’s a lot to sort out. Some of the major gatekeepers [making food decisions] tend to be impressionable,” he says. “They want ‘natural,’ but unfortunately they make judgments based on misinformation.”
Both the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), representing the HFCS industry, and corn grower groups are very involved in providing the information consumers lack at the county fair, at grocery stores, explains Mark Lambert, senior communications manager for NCGA.
“They reach out to the ‘mommy bloggers,’ bringing people out to the farm to learn about food.”
The CRA launched a 2008 national educational campaign (see www.sweetsurprise.com).
CRA also works to set the record straight with food and beverage companies. A second website, www.cornnaturally.com, provides information on consumer preferences, scientific data and a sweetener cost comparison tool.
Tight supplies ration corn use
There is evidence other, less public, forces may have a greater influence on HFCS use. At USDA ERS, Senior Economist Tom Capehart sees tight corn stocks affecting HFCS.
“Record corn prices and the very tight carryout ratiaons corn use,” he says. “The companies that use HFCS have the option to go back to sugar. The public attacks on HFCS have sort of run their course, and CRA has done a pretty good job of countering them. Price is what will make users switch.”
As for long-term trends, Earley believes U.S. HFCS consumption is stabilizing, a pattern USDA’s 2012 Long-term Projections attributes to a slowdown in the decline in carbonated soft drink consumption.
Looking ahead to 2021, the reportsuggests slow growth in HFCS use – at half the rate of U.S. population growth. That may be limited, however, by consumer dietary concerns or changes in taste and preference. For example, beverages are the single largest market for HFCS, and preferences for them are always changing.
For example, Pepsi recently launched Pepsi NEXT in Australia, using a non-caloric stevia sweetener to reduce sugar content by 30%. Tate & Lyle, a major producer of stevia and HFCS, says its stevia ingredient could cut cola sugar levels in half.