Guilty by association: The plight of regular corn syrup


While in the grocery store over the weekend, I thought about picking up a little container of jelly candies. I’ve never bought that product before, and it seemed innocuous enough: all natural, no preservatives, etc. But after I checked the ingredients list, I noticed that “corn syrup” was the second-largest ingredient. Thinking this was the same as the notorious high-fructose corn syrup, I put the candy back on the shelf.

However, there’s just one problem: regular corn syrup isn’t the same thing as high-fructose corn syrup (or “HFCS”). I’m no expert on the matter, but from a bit of research, it appears that corn syrup is quite different than HFCS. Since HFCS has gotten so much bad press for its role in high-sugar foods like soft drinks and candy, I attributed these same problems to regular corn syrup when I saw it on the ingredients list.

Therein lies the problem: people make decisions based on available data, and there’s a whole lot of information out there saying that HFCS is bad. So when shoppers come across another product or ingredient that sounds the same, they’re probably going to associate the ups and downs of the better-known product to the lesser-known one as well. Needless to say, this can have a big impact on sales if your product looks like or sounds like or has similar-sounding ingredients to something that people are more familiar with.

What’s a manufacturer to do? One smart approach is to identify those potential misconceptions and address them on the packaging. In my example, they could have added an asterisk or other notation right after the spot where corn syrup appears. The text might read as follows: “Corn syrup is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup, and contains much less sugar.” By dealing with this potential objection right away, a larger percentage of the people who read the ingredient list will end up buying the product, instead of rejecting it because one of the ingredients sounds bad.

Indeed, looking back at my original example, this sort of explanatory text would have been enough to make me buy the jelly candy. And the next time I’m at the store, I probably will.