‘Corn sugar’ in the crosshairs of FDA, sugar makers (and the public at large)


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By Consumers Union on Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

The makers of high-fructose corn syrup (or ‘corn sugar’, as they’d have us call it) are scrambling around on the defense – and with good reason.   First came the attacks from the American public, who began pointing a finger at the ubiquitous sweeter as the cause of our ever-increasing waistlines, accompanied by epidemic proportions of related diseases like diabetes. Companies from Starbucks to Hunts to Snapple began reformulating ingredient lists of their products to be ‘HFCS-free’ and ‘sweetened with natural sugar’ as consumers gravitated away from the corn-based sweetener equating it with unnatural, unwholesome, fattening food.  Indeed, a 2008 poll found that 58% of people viewed high fructose corn syrup as a “health hazard”.

But the corn syrup industry fought back, launching a massive ad campaign to correct the ‘misinformation’ and claiming no difference between their product and natural sugar. Finally deciding it was an issue of rebranding, the Corn Refiners Association (the industry group representing corn syrup makers) petitioned the FDA for a name change, hoping that Americans would find ‘corn sugar’ more palatable than ‘high-fructose corn syrup’.

Although the FDA has yet to issue a decision on the name change, the industry moved ahead touting the new ‘corn sugar’ name through another ad campaign – thus drawing a backlash from the sugar industry.   In a lawsuit currently under consideration , beet and cane sugar companies claim false advertising by corn refiners and accuse them of  “seeking to co-opt the goodwill of ‘sugar’ and even changing the [high-fructose corn syrup] name by calling it a kind of sugar.”

The proposed name change is catching flack from more than just the sugar industry.  According to the Huffington Post:  “ More than 100 citizens and consumer groups have written to the FDA as it weighs the name change, many of them slamming the rebranding as a cynical attempt to confuse customers who may be wary of high fructose corn syrup.”

Consumers Union is among the groups that submitted comments to the FDA urging them to reject the name change request based on the grounds that it would mislead consumers, making it more confusing for those who wish to avoid corn syrup.   Furthermore, CU refutes industry claims that ‘corn sugar’ is simply extracted sugar that occurs naturally in corn when in fact “there are several chemical processing steps required, with consequent chemical changes that are not reflected in the term ‘corn sugar.”

In the meantime, the corn sugar ad campaign has drawn the ire of the FDA, which issued a warning to the corn industry to quit using the new name until it has official approval from the agency, which may take another year.  So far, however, few changes appear to be made in the ads acknowledging the FDA’s request.

Expect to see this issue continue to play out in the media, be it for the details of the court case between the corn and sugar industries, or for news on the FDA’s decision on the name change.   But whether it’s called sugar, corn sugar or high fructose corn syrup, perhaps it’s best summed up by Marion Nestle over at FoodPolitics.com:

Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar is about marketing, not public health. If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.

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