Filed Under: Big Fat Lies Soft Drinks

Sweetener Wars Teach Marketing 101

In the world of dietary politics, few campaigns are nastier than the one against high fructose corn syrup. From comparing it to illegal drugs to calling it the Devil, opponents of this common sweetener have resorted to some dirty tactics over the years. But as Daniel Engber explains in Slate this week, even the fanciest marketing tricks won’t change simple facts. No matter how creative the packaging, regular sucrose (what you know as “table sugar”) has no superior qualities over its equally sweet rival.
Engber describes the smoke and mirrors used to stigmatize high fructose corn syrup as a three-pronged propaganda approach:

The case against high fructose corn syrup comprises the three cardinal claims of food politics: Like other villainous ingredients—trans fat and artificial food dye come to mind—high-fructose corn syrup is accused of being at once unhealthy, unnatural, and unappetizing… While none of these claims is completely wrong when it comes to corn sweetener, none is quite right, either.

Sure, high fructose corn syrup is unhealthy in excess – but it’s no unhealthier than ordinary table sugar. High fructose corn syrup is natural (if you ask the Food and Drug Administration). And although “appetizing” is a matter of personal preference, Engber points out that in some informal taste tests plenty of consumers preferred soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup.
So why bother piling on the weak arguments if they’re all still… weak? The answer may be as simple as Marketing 101:

It doesn’t matter how weak each claim is on its own terms; together, they seem irrefutable. You can win over hypochondriacs with one argument, environmentalists with another, and gourmands with a third. That’s the beauty of the three-pronged critique: It’s customizable. 

He’s right: Flying on airplanes is expensive, noisy, and dangerous. Well, not really. But let’s get rid of it anyway!

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