Management at the H.J. Heinz Co., the nation’s leading ketchup manufacturer, has taken a pro-choice approach to the anything-but-sweet battle being waged over the use of cane or beet sugar in food products vs. high fructose corn syrup.
Heinz earlier this year introduced a version of its ketchup made with sugar, a product named Simply Heinz.
Yet the Pittsburgh food company kept the controversial sweetener in its flagship ketchup, which has legions of fans and outsells the nation’s other brands.
The strategy would seem designed to make everyone happy but, rather like being a middle-of-the-road candidate in a polarized election year, it hasn’t appeased the populace.
“I love the taste of Heinz!” wrote Andrea Rega on Facebook in August. “It is by far the best tasting ketchup, but because you opt to use High Fructose Corn Syrup rather than natural ingredients I will no longer put it on my table.”
In the food industry, salty issues sure seem simpler these days than sweet ones.
Numerous companies, including Heinz, have been steadily reducing sodium content in their products.
There seems to be general agreement that too much salt is bad for people’s health. As long as a food maker is careful not to mess up the taste in changing its recipe, what’s to complain about?
The sweetener issue is less settled.
There’s still plenty of debate on whether sugar made from cane or beets is better for consumers than high fructose corn syrup. The Center for Science in the Public Interest won’t pick between the two.
“Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same,” said the group’s executive director Michael F. Jacobson, in a statement earlier this month.
“So soft drinks and other products sweetened with sugar are every bit as conducive to weight gain as products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.
“The bottom line is that people should consume less of all added sugars.”
But the cane/beet sugar side seems to be winning the public relations battle.
Jacobson’s comment came in response to a petition by The Corn Refiners Association in September to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asking that manufacturers get the option of listing “corn sugar” instead of high fructose corn syrup on their labels. The FDA’s decision could take awhile.
Awareness of high fructose corn syrup — long a low-key presence in small type on labels — is on the rise. In 2004, 40 percent of Americans were concerned the ingredient might pose a health hazard, according to research firm NPD Group. In 2010, that number had risen to 53 percent.
Marilyn Raymond, who works on new product development as an executive vice president at GfK Strategic Innovation in Ann Arbor, Mich., said she wondered if the increasing number of manufacturers announcing moves away from HFCS in some products is being driven by concern over consumer perceptions or by actual sales results.
For now, it appears several food manufacturers are taking a similar approach to the one that Heinz has chosen: Change some products but not others, and then analyze the response.
Just last week, PepsiCo announced its Sierra Mist lemon-lime soda would become Sierra Mist Natural. The company said the move came in response to consumer demand for products made with natural ingredients.
PepsiCo has noted in earnings reports that it has had success with “Throwback” versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew “made with real sugar.”
Yet the Purchase, N.Y., company still has plenty of products that use high fructose corn syrup, including the flagship Pepsi.
In August, Sara Lee Corp. announced changes to its two most popular breads that would take out the high fructose corn syrup and replace it with sugar.
That company, too, cited consumer demand.
At about the same time that Heinz was introducing its Simply Heinz ketchup earlier this year, Conagra Foods pulled all of the high fructose corn syrup out of its Hunt’s ketchup products “in direct response to consumer demand.”
It’s hard to tease out yet whether the changes have had an impact on ketchup sales. In the 52 weeks ended Aug. 8, unit sales of Heinz ketchup rose 2.37 percent, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.
By comparison, sales in the second-place private label ketchup category were up 1.46 percent and the main Hunt’s ketchup, in third place, rose 3.06 percent.
Those results include sales from supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers.
They do not include Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, or club stores and convenience stores.
Hunt’s still trails Heinz significantly, but some of the third-place contender’s gains might have been driven by the ingredient change, Raymond said.
A Heinz spokeswoman said the Pittsburgh company believes offering choices is the right decision. There are consumers looking for ketchup without high fructose corn syrup, said Jessica Jackson, Heinz senior manager, public relations.
“We also have consumers that love Heinz Ketchup just the way it is, and would prefer we don’t change America’s favorite ketchup.”
She said the company’s solution to meeting different consumer demands is “lifestyles lines of ketchup,” which includes Simply Heinz and Organic ketchup, in addition to No Salt Added Ketchup, Hot & Spicy Ketchup and Reduced Sugar Ketchup.