Whether these concerns are justified or not is being debated in the court of public opinion, as scientists and other critics (including sugar growers and marketers) continue to press on with their contentions, and the Corn Refiners Association tries to counter.
The latest scientific salvo came in two recent studies, one in the Environmental Health science journal and the other disclosed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Both cited mercury contamination. The EH study was based on an analysis of samples from three different manufacturers, and the IATP study detected mercury in nearly one-third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second highest labeled ingredient. Mercury was most prevalent in dairy items, dressings and condiments, the IATP said.
This much buzz has undoubtedly contributed to three straight years of sales advances among HFCS-free products in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Walmart). In the 52 weeks ended April 18, 2009, HFCS-free dollar sales jumped by 13.4% to $945.5 million, according to Nielsen LabelTrends data. This approached the 16.3% growth rate of the prior year, which more than doubled the 7.8% gain of the year before. No comparable figures on equivalized unit volume (EUV) were available.
The HFCS-free labeling activity appears to be having its greatest effect in two areas—shelf-stable juices and drinks, and frozen bread and baked goods. In shelf-stable juices and drinks, a 1.9% dollar sales increase to $755.9 million correlated with an equivalized unit share rise of HFCS-free products to 9.4%. In frozen bread and baked goods, a 153.3% dollar sales leap to $91.7 million correlated with a near tripling of the equivalized unit share of HFCS-free products to 9.0%, reported Nielsen.
A look at 24 food and beverage categories throughout the store shows that in 22 of them, products claiming to be HFCS-free still account for negligible shares, ranging no higher than 9.4% of EUV. There's a preponderance of categories with triple-digit dollar sales growth or even greater; their category shares may still be small, but consumer awareness is starting to turn HFCS-free into a claim with some sales merit.
This is happening in: yogurt, where HFCS-free products grew by 224.5% in dollar sales to $22.0 million in the latest 52 weeks; breakfast foods, where HFCS-free products grew by 110.5% to $14.7 million in the same period; vitamins, where HFCS-free products grew by 639.5% to $2.6 million; milk, where HFCS-free products grew by 1,493.5% to $2.2 million; tea, where HFCS-free products grew by 19,671.4% to $1.0 million; salad dressings/mayonnaise/toppings, where HFCS-free products grew by 3,324.5% to more than $900,000; refrigerated juices and drinks, where HFCS-free products grew by 3,402.7% to $745,000; condiments/gravies/sauces, where HFCS-free grew by 128.0% to more than $300,000; and coffee, where HFCS-free products grew by 1,115.7% to $175,000.