ST. LOUIS - A mother pours a child a flavored drink, a younger woman offers her boyfriend a Popsicle - then both are confronted about the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup.
The sweetener is made from corn, has no artificial ingredients and is fine in moderation, the women say in two commercials a trade group is airing in the hope of rehabilitating the image of the ubiquitous sweetener, used in everything from cereals to sodas to bread.
The television commercials, which launched this week, are part of a national advertising blitz by the Corn Refiners Association.
"This is designed to correct the record," said Audrae Erickson, the association's president, adding that it's "not a campaign to drive consumption" of corn syrup.
Studies have linked the nation's growing obesity problem with sweetened beverages, and high-fructose corn syrup is the main sweetener used in processed beverages. But industry scientists and many dietitians say it is no more fattening than sugar.
Corn syrup is popular with manufacturers partly because it is cheaper than sugar.
The American Medical Association has said recently that its analysis of current research suggests that high-fructose syrup is unlikely to contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners. But the group encouraged more independent research of long-term health effects of all sweeteners.
More than 10 percent of Americans' daily calories come from fructose, including high-fructose corn syrup, with sweetened beverages the largest source of the syrup, according to an Emory University study published this year.
Research has shown increasing use of fructose coinciding with rising obesity rates - but it hasn't shown a definitive link. Animal studies have linked high-fructose corn syrup with potential risks for elevated cholesterol and diabetes.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the campaign is "interesting" and fair in dispelling what he calls an urban myth that high-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar.
"To pretend that a product sweetened with sugar is healthier than a product sweetened by high-fructose corn syrup is totally misguided," Jacobson said.
The Corn Refiners Association, whose members include food giants Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc., won't say publicly what the 18-month campaign, launched in June, will cost. But Erickson didn't refute published reports that the effort's tab could be $20 million to $30 million.
To her, the push - which mostly targets mothers - is money well spent.
The TV spots complement full-page advertisements popping up in big newspapers across the country, each grousing that "lately, high-fructose corn syrup has had its name dragged through the media."
"Even registered dietitians agree that you can keep enjoying the foods and beverages you love, just do it in moderation," read an ad in Monday's Chicago Tribune, showing a picture of a bagel with some spread and the headline, "Could it be another schmear campaign?"
Another advertisement shows a corn cob, calling the message "a little food for thought."
None of the advertisements cast the manufactured sweetener as "natural," though they could following a clarifying letter Erickson received in July from a supervisor with the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The supervisor, Geraldine June, wrote that high-fructose corn syrup could be called "natural" because it's corn-based and contains nothing artificial or synthetic.
In 2006, the Sugar Association petitioned the FDA to clarify the definition of "natural," complaining that its use in describing high-fructose corn syrup was misleading because corn's original chemical state is altered significantly during processing into syrup.
By the time the clarification letter came this summer, Erickson said, the campaign's ads were too far in development to include any last-minute reference to "natural."
The ads do say high-fructose corn syrup contains "no artificial ingredients," which Erickson says gets the same point across.