There's a ketchup change that's making some consumers red in the face.
Omaha-based ConAgra Foods Inc. has quietly re-introduced high-fructose corn syrup to some bottles of the company's Hunt's brand ketchup.
The shift back to the heavily debated, low-cost corn-based sweetner comes roughly two years after the packaged food giant very publicly announced that it would strip high fructose corn syrup from its Hunt's ketchup in favor of five basic ingredients: tomatoes, vinegar, salt, seasonings and, yes, sugar. Plain old sugar.
The reason for the bold original change, which made ConAgra the first of all major ketchup manufacturers to pull the plug on corn syrup, was consumer demand. At the time, the company said, high-fructose corn syrup had fallen out of favor with grocery shoppers and avid label-checkers, and consumers wanted a simpler condiment with ingredients they knew and understood.
Now, the company's reasoning for the change back to the high-fructose corn syrup formula? Again, consumer demand.
“Overall, consumer demand for the HFCS-free ketchup was not as strong as expected,” said ConAgra spokesman Jeff Mochal, “thus prompting the change.”
But some ketchup fans who work to avoid high fructose corn syrup, aren't happy with the about-face.
“The fact that it was done quietly proves what reaction they must be anticipating,” said Scott Nelson, a 21-year-old marketing and pre-law student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I remember a seemingly huge tide of support for replacing the substance with natural sugar a couple years ago and, honestly, I'm somewhat skeptical of ConAgra's claims of low consumer support for it.”
Sales and consumer sentiment data, however, support ConAgra's claim.
From May 13, 2011, through May 13, 2012, sales of all lines of Hunt's ketchup were $69.5 million, down 3.34 percent from $72 million during the same period a year ago, based on data from SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. (The figures do not include sales from Walmart stores.)
Total market share for Hunt's was roughly 14.6 percent during the recent period versus 15.3 percent during the period ending last May. Hunt's, which is the third-largest brand behind Heinz and private label, also saw unit sales decline by more than 3.5 million bottles.
In addition, according to results from the International Food Information Council's 2012 Food and Health survey released in late May, the volume of consumers who are currently keeping close tabs on the presence of high fructose corn syrup in their foods has not changed since last year, but has receded since 2010, the year ConAgra moved to the all-sugar ketchup formula.
About 44 percent of those surveyed said they were trying to limit or avoid the corn-based sweetener, while 45 percent said they paid no attention to it at all.
In the 2011 version of the survey, the same portion — 44 percent — said they were actively avoiding high-fructose corn syrup, while in 2010, 63 percent of survey participants were actively trying to consume less high-fructose corn syrup.
Two years ago, ConAgra said the all-sugar formula would be slightly more expensive to produce than its syrup-sweetened counterpart, but the company now says cost wasn't a factor in the company's decision to bring high-fructose corn syrup back into some of its bottles.
“In general, this move reflects demand and not cost,” Mochal said. ConAgra declined additional interview requests and would not discuss cost differences.
At an Omaha-area grocery story, an inverted, 20-ounce bottle of the Hunt's “100 percent Natural” ketchup cost $1.69, or 8.5 cents an ounce, while a larger, 24-ounce traditional squeeze bottle with the less-expensive corn sweetner rang-up at $1.48, or 6 cents an ounce — enough of a difference to be noticed by coupon-clipping, label-reading shoppers.
During a recent visit to an Omaha-area grocery store, the condiment aisle shelves were dominated by ketchup containing high-fructose corn syrup.
The “100 percent Natural” Hunt's — the name that appears in a green banner on the bottle's label — will be carried in most grocery stores in inverted 20-, 28- and 62-ounce bottles. On the “Natural” line's bottle, a bright yellow banner contains, the words “No High Fructose Corn Syrup.”
The Hunt's ketchup containing the corn sweetener carries a similar green banner with the words “No Preservatives.”
Omahan Bill Kos, 58, is a self-employed business intelligence consultant, and said he's always paid close attention to labels, even when he was a young child. He does the same now, and checks to see not only if his groceries contain high-fructose corn syrup, but also how much.
“I'm a big proponent of people reading labels and gauging their intake,” Kos said. “The bottom line is that you really need to monitor your sugar intake.”
Kos wasn't upset about ConAgra's decision to move back to corn syrup, but suggested the company should have been more forthcoming, especially since the company claimed it was a consumer-driven move, he said.
“You can't hide anything,” he said, “and it's best to be upfront. Ultimately, major companies want to do what customers want, so ConAgra could have discussed it more openly.”
Clinical research revolving around the health impacts of the syrupy corn sweetner have been mixed. Some studies suggest the human body does not process corn syrup in the same manner as table sugar, which can lead to weight gain, while others have found zero difference between the effects of high-fructose corn syrup and regular granulated sugar on the human body.
In 2010, ConAgra touted the move to remove high fructose corn syrup in media reports and its marketing. “Parents are looking for wholesome meals and ingredients they recognize,” Ryan Toreson, Hunt's Ketchup brand manager, said at the time.
In 2010, the corn industry was two years into a marketing campaign stressing high fructose corn syrup's similarity to sugar. Consumption of the manufactured sweetener hit a peak in 1999 and has fallen steadily since 2002, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the average American consumed 49 pounds in 2010.
Late last month, the Corn Refiners Association lost an effort to make “corn sugar” an official, alternate name for high fructose corn syrup.
In the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's response, Michael M. Landa, the director of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote that since high-fructose corn syrup isn't a solid, it cannot be called a “sugar.”
In nutrition circles, high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are considered to be the same, only with a slightly-different molecular makeup. Table sugar, or sucrose, is made up of bonded fructose and glucose molecules, while high-fructose corn syrup contains individual fructose and glucose molecules, without the bond.
“Really, the bottom line is, it's the same thing,” said Jill Kogel, a registered dietician and blogger for The World-Herald's LivewellNebraska.com. “It's just structured differently.”
Nelson said he doesn't think high-fructose corn syrup is significantly different from sugar when it comes to his health. His motivation is to avoid low-cost, processed ingredients that are partially subsidized by the federal government.
“I don't like when politics get ground up and mixed in with my cereal or ketchup,” he said.
Contact the writer: