High-fructose corn syrup has gotten such a bad name that the Corn Refiners Association, in a bid to repair its image, has asked the federal government to allow it to drop the label and replace it with "corn sugar."
In a petition to the FDA, the lobbying arm of the syrup-making industry argues that the current name is confusing consumers, citing a study by market research firm NPD Group. The study, which looks at food safety concerns and eating intentions in the U.S., shows nearly 60% of Americans believe corn syrup poses a health risk.
The maligned product -- present in everything from soda to cereals to salad dressings, to even cough syrup -- has been widely blamed in recent years for the national spike in obesity, pancreatic cancer, and diabetes. Its tarnished reputation, coupled with a scramble by packaged food companies to slap "natural" claims on their products, has left HFCS manufacturers scratching their heads on how to up sales.
"No one should disagree with helping consumers understand where their food comes from," Audrae Erickson, president of the CRA, told Consumer Ally. "Right now Americans are confused about the name because they think it's high in fructose, which it isn't."
Erickson said popular beverages such as apple juice and agave nectar contain much higher levels of fructose -- 70% and 66%, respectively -- than either table sugar or corn syrup, which have about 42%. Excess fructose consumption is linked to obesity, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and liver disease.
A number of leading scientists have also pointed out that the food scare surrounding high-fructose corn syrup is unjustified or at least misdirected. Marion Nestle, a renowned food industry critic and professor in New York University's department of nutrition, says Americans' problem with sugar is not corn syrup, but rather an over-consumption of all types of sugar.
"I am not fond of the idea that Americans use 60 pounds of corn sweeteners per capita per year and another 60 pounds of table sugar, and I am not particularly eager to help the Corn Refiners sell more of their stuff," Nestle wrote on her blog. But, she noted, as a result of all the bad press and fear-mongering, "HFCS is the new trans fat. Everyone thinks HFCS is poison. [It] is not poison."
Corn syrup is a mixture of glucose and fructose in almost the same proportions as table sugar, and experts say they are both nutritionally the same.
In 2008, CRA launched a massive public relations campaign to convince consumers that corn syrup isn't the scourge it had been made out to be. Now, in its new marketing push, at cornsugar.com, sweetsurprise.com, on its Twitter page and in various TV spots, the lobby continues to argue that the substance is no more harmful than any other popular full-calorie sweetener derived from beets or sugar cane.
But despite all the scientific evidence in favor of corn syrup, which is cheaper to produce than table sugar, the perception that the industry is trying to manipulate consumers endures.
"The packaged foods industry has a PR problem on its hands. It's not an unheard of tactic for an industry in this position to respond in one of two ways: take the ingredient out or create another product line and tout that it doesn't contain the bad ingredient any more," Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back," said in an interview. "Corn refiners' livelihoods are threatened."
Simon, who believes "cheap and ubiquitous" corn syrup's worst offense is the perpetuation of super-sizing American meals, likened the manufacturers' bid to rename their signature product to the rebranding of tobacco company Philip Morris as "Altria" in 2003.
"The food industry is copying the same book: when people don't like what it is doing, it just comes up with a new name," said Simon. She attributes the industry's bold appeal to the FDA to a string of unsuccessful attempts to change public perception in the past. "This is phase two of the process -- applying to the federal government."
Eventually the issue will die down and it's likely that most Americans still won't know the difference between corn syrup and sugar, Simon added. "Time will march on and food products will continue to have all kinds of unknown ingredients."
The FDA has six months to consider and respond to the petition.
High-fructose corn syrup could get a new, less maligned name