This week, fast-food chain Panera announced it would stop using foods containing the ingredient amid concerns about its impact on health.
“We’re trying to draw a line in the sand in the industry so that consumers have an easy way to know what’s in the food they buy,” Ron Shaich, chief executive of Panera, told the New York Times.
But it's years late to the corporate-corn-syrup-ditch game, and it may not actually end up improving its customers' health.
Per-capita consumption of the ingredient declined for at least the 14th straight year in 2014—and by 2018 will have crashed by 34 percent from 2000 rates, according to projections (in yellow) from research group Euromonitor.
However, there doesn’t appear to be much correlation between the consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which is going down, and the rate of overweight adults in the U.S., which has leveled off but remains at a historic high.
There is far from uniform agreement that high fructose corn syrup is any worse than other forms of sugar. As Slate’s Daniel Engber has written, it doesn’t contain that much more actual fructose than table sugar, and countries that have almost none of it, like Australia, still have comparable obesity rates. The two most recent studies published on the ingredient had a combined sample pool of just 109 people.
“In recent years, high fructose corn syrup has come under the spotlight for its potential links to obesity and other health-related concerns,” John Madden, the head of ingredients for Euromonitor, a market-research firm, told Fusion in an email. “Despite the ongoing debate surrounding the scientific accuracy of these claims, many skeptical consumers have opted to steer clear of products which contain HFCS, thereby putting pressure on companies to consider product reformulations.”
Panera’s announcement also represents an extremely late entry in the let’s-ditch-HFCS field. 2009, for instance, saw Pizza Hut, Kraft Foods, and ConAgra all abandon.
Rather, Madden said the decline in HFCS is mainly being driven by people drinking fewer sodas. Bloomberg reported last month that carbonated soft drink volumes fell 0.9 percent in 2014, the 10th straight annual decline, with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc. and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc. all losing market share to companies like Monster Beverage Corp., the energy drink maker. Monster’s drinks contain sizable quantities of sugar, though they usually take the form of glucose.
“Declining sales of carbonates, which currently account for 84% of the US HFCS market, have done the most serious damage,” Madden said. “This decline has been most evident in cola carbonates.’”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.