Corn sweetener loses its luster, and its customers

When beer makers brawled over a Super Bowl ad about corn syrup last winter, their battle illustrated the reduced role of corn sweeteners in the food and beverage industry. A new USDA report reveals that domestic production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has declined steadily since 2002, and that sugar is commanding a larger share of the sweetener market.

HFCS is used in cereals and baked goods, processed foods and beverages. For years, as those sectors grew, so did HFCS sales. But domestic deliveries of HFCS in 2018 were down 26 percent from 2002. “Much of this is due to uses of HFCS, and processed food and drink manufacturers changing their ingredients to meet perceived consumer preference for non-HFCS sweeteners,” said USDA analysts in the monthly Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook.

Food and beverage companies started large-scale use of HFCS in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to higher-priced cane and beet sugar. From 2.2 million short tons, dry weight, in 1980, HFCS production had zoomed to 9.5 million tons by 1999. Then the downturn began. Production barely topped 8 million tons last year. Domestic deliveries have fallen much faster, to 6.8 million tons last year from 9.2 million tons in 2002 — the 26 percent decline cited by analysts.

Exports have exceeded 1 million tons annually since 2009, with Mexico consistently as the largest buyer. It bought 1.06 million tons of the 1.25 million tons exported last year.

Last month, beer-making giant MillerCoors filed a false-advertising suit against industry titan Anheuser-Busch InBev because of a Bud Light ad that, in a faux-medieval setting, ridiculed its competitors for using corn syrup during the beer-brewing process. MillerCoors says the syrup it uses is consumed by yeast, so it’s not part of the beer. “Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup have become nutritional boogeymen in recent years,” said a Washington Post story in which a consumer advocate noted that HFCS is frequently used in soft drinks, a common target in anti-obesity campaigns. “Corn syrup is no worse for you than table sugar or any other kind of sweetener,” said the advocate.

“By at least some accounts, the big loser” in the advertising brouhaha was “the corn industry,” said Food and Wine. Underscoring that point, the National Corn Growers Association took to social media to tell Bud Light that “America’s corn farmers are disappointed in you.”

At one point, as much as 10 percent of the U.S. corn crop was used to make sweeteners. Now it’s around 6 percent. Roughly 10 times as much corn is used today to make ethanol as sweeteners. Meanwhile, sugar has again become the most widely used sweetener.