HFCS-free label claim grows, primarily in fruit drinks

HFCS-free label claim grows, primarily in fruit drinks Nutritional controversy over high fructose corn syrup hasn't kept it from being used as a sweetener in many processed foods. While early studies linked consumption of sweetened beverages (with HFCS) with obesity, five papers just published in a supplement to Clinical Nutrition conclude there is no connection.

The newer research could be part of a pushback by the corn industry, which also launched the www.sweetsurprise.com website last year to promote HFCS as an alternative to sugar.

No wonder consumers are confused—and are increasingly attracted to food packages with label claims that read "High Fructose Corn Syrup-free." While sites like www.mayoclinic.com suggest moderation in the consumption of processed foods with any sweetener, more people want to go cold turkey on HFCS.

They have a new reason to be concerned. Much of the nation's HFCS is contaminated with mercury, according to findings of two new studies issued Jan. 26, one in the Environmental Health science journal, and another from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In the IATP study, mercury was most prevalent in dairy items, dressings and condiments. IATP called the contamination "avoidable." (See Supermarket Guru B2B, Jan. 27, 2009 issue.)

People might hesitate more before consuming foods with HFCS. Already, the dollar sales of HFCS-free products approached $900 million in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Walmart) in the 52 weeks ended December 27, 2008, according to Nielsen LabelTrends data.

This figure reflects a steady rise the past three years, of 4.9% in 2006, 15.4% in 2007, and 12.9% in 2008, from the $650.1 million level in 2005.

The bulk of this shift has occurred in 'cranberry' and 'other flavors' of shelf-stable fruit drinks. These two segments combined account for $621.0 million, or more than two-thirds of the $888.2 million in HFCS-free dollar sales, the Nielsen data show.

While 'cranberry' sales have moved up the past three years to $314.3 million, the 'other flavors' shelf-stable fruit drinks have slid to $306.8 million.

No other product segment approaches these in size yet, because the majority of the 50 segments tracked with HFCS-free sales are only in their second or third year of such activity.

Third in size is 'remaining fruit juice, shelf-stable,' which has more tripled in volume since 2005 to $68.6 million, on successive double-digit annual gains.

Fresh bread finished the latest 52 weeks as the #4 generator of HFCS-free sales. It has soared from $12.8 million in 2006 to $22.7 million in 2007, and then to $63.0 million in 2008, according to Nielsen. Its equivalized unit volume (16 ounce basis) ran parallel, with consecutive yearly movement gains of 79.1% and 207.2%.

Shelf-stable apple juice was #5. This segment appeared on the scene in 2007 with $20.5 million in HFCS-free sales, and quickly rose by 44.8% to $29.6 million in 2008, the data showed.

Finishing the year in sixth through tenth, all on high percentage advances, were: health bars and sticks, $20.3 million; shelf-stable vegetable juice and drink, $15.1 million; shelf-stable grape juice, $12.9 million; granola and yogurt bars, $12.6 million; and refrigerated yogurt, $7.2 million.