Why Sugar Is Suing High Fructose Corn Syrup: A Sticky Question of Names

high fructose corn syrup renamed corn sugarWhen you need to give yourself a whole new image, there's nothing like changing your name: Just ask Philip Morris, Ralph Lauren and the medication formerly known as thalidomide. Recently, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the scourge of dieticians and dieters from coast to coast, has started down that road by attempting to rename itself "corn sugar." But there's one big obstacle in its way: the sugar industry, which doesn't want to be tainted by connection to the infamous sweetener -- and is willing to go to court to protect itself.

When it was invented in 1957, high fructose corn syrup's name was largely irrelevant. Unknown outside of a small circle of chemists, the compound was an expensive, hard-to-synthesize scientific curiosity. It took another 20 years and the development of a low-cost production method for HFCS to gain ground in America. But between tariffs that drove up the cost of imported cane and beet sugars, and federal subsidies that drove down the cost of corn, HFCS usage quickly exploded. In 1972, the average American consumed about 1.2 pounds of the stuff. Within seven years, that number had increased more than twelve-fold, to 14.8 pounds. And by 1999, the average American was putting away over 63 pounds of high fructose corn syrup.

In the last ten years, HFCS usage has plummeted by more than 20% as consumers have grown increasingly wary of the sweetener. It has been blamed for a wide array of health problems, including liver damage, diabetes, heart problems and even mercury consumption. The strongest attack against it, however, has come from health advocates who blame the ubiquitous sweetener for America's large and expanding obesity epidemic.

There is debate about the relative dangers of HFCS, and many researchers argue that the fructose-glucose blend's effect on the body is no worse than that of sucrose. But there is no question that the syrup, a popular food additive, is larding the average American diet with empty calories. Mixed into a mind-boggling array of drinks, cereals, soups and other prepared foods, HFCS has become something of a silent scourge, inspiring many consumers to scour labels in search of its dread name. Meanwhile, many popular brands -- and a growing number of restaurants -- have proudly proclaimed that they no longer use the sweetener.

Fructose By Any Other Name ...

For years, corn producers have fought the downward slide of HFCS. In 2007, the FDA ruled that companies using it could refer to it as "all-natural," noting that HFCS is produced from vegetables. The following year, the Corn Refiners' Association launched a pair of commercials defending HFCS. In one, a smug mother refuses to give her child fruit with punch corn syrup, but is unable justify her decision. In the other, a man refuses a bite of an HFCS-laden popsicle offered to him by his girlfriend, but can't explain why. Both commercials end with the claim that HFCS is "natural," "made from corn," and "fine in moderation."

Other considerations aside, Time magazine contributor Lisa McLaughlin noted a central problem of the pro-HFCS campaign -- "unless you're making a concerted effort to avoid it, it's pretty difficult to consume high-fructose corn syrup in moderation." Still, despite the campaign, corn syrup has remained Enemy No. 1 in the war for American nutrition. In fact, cane sugar -- which was also reviled, once upon a time -- has vastly increased in popularity, to the extent that many food companies are now touting it in their products as a selling point.

Just Call it Corn Sugar

In context, it's not surprising that the CRA has launched an attempt to rebrand HFCS as "corn sugar." A year ago, the group asked the FDA for permission to use the term. While the government continues to deliberate, however, corn refiners have already begun slipping the new name into advertisements, a move that has infuriated cane and beet sugar producers ... and landed the CRA in court.

A group of sugar farmers and refiners, worried about the effect that the HFCS rebranding could have on their business, sued to stop the usage of the name, claiming that it was false advertising. As evidence, they cited a 1997 report from the CRA in which the group stated that sugar and HFCS were "are two different products in terms of their physical and functional characteristics, as well as in their production process, distribution and commercial application."

According to the CRA, the 1997 report was taken out of context: While the production methods for sugar and HFCS differ, the two "are equivalent as far as how they are metabolized by the body." On Sept. 13, the CRA asked U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall to dismiss the case, claiming that the rebranding is part of an ongoing national conversation about HFCS and, as such, should be protected under the free speech provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Judge Marshall has not ruled yet, but it's clear that -- with sugar refiners, corn growers and a concerned public all weighing in -- the debate over HFCS' role in American life won't end in her courtroom.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Windy Daley

Why wait for rat experiments while your health is in jeopardy? Give up high fructose corn syrup, and the highly processed foods that it is in, and see how much better you will feel in a couple of months. Just go "cold turkey" and get over the addictions quickly. Do you really think that the corn refiners really consume that artificial red drink they touted on their commercials? Do you really think that they give it to their children? Or do they want you to be their addicted slaves? Read labels, and eat healthier, and your body will thank you.

By the way, if the insects refuse to eat that genetically altered corn (even before it is synthesized into HFCS), then what could make humans think that it is okay for them?

Love your children enough to feed them real food.

September 19 2011 at 6:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Hi Ron

"Sugar" is a word in common parlance and, therefore, why shouldn't the HFCS producers have a right to call their product "corn sugar" after all, it comes from corn and it is a sugar. Makes sense, right? Well, not completely. There are labeling laws and the purpose for those laws is to inform the shopping public. Avoiding confusion is an important if implicit consideration. Sugar manufacturers (not the HFCS type) can use corn as a basis for their product (they currently use mainly cane and beets), it would be sugar or "corn sugar" but it would not involve the concentration process that renders high fructose. It is that process that needs to be disclosed to the buyer. The bare term "corn sugar" does not convey that process and would confuse the public. HFCS producers are selling a sugar, yes, but a processed one, and that aspect of it should not be left off the label.

September 19 2011 at 10:43 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Looks like lefty lawyers are looking to sue HFCS manufacturers for global warming too and a whole bunch of other things based on junk science done at major universities on Gubmint grants. I smell tobacco settlements a mile away,

September 18 2011 at 8:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I know someone who is highly allergic to corn syrup. It gives her severe heart palpitations. Sugar does not have that effect.

September 18 2011 at 5:08 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

That corn syrup is "suspect" is irrefutable. While the jury is out I will try to avoid HFCS until science definitively tells me it is safe to eat and that it isn't responsible for the myriad of things it is being pilloried for. Free market system at work.

September 18 2011 at 2:29 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

If you don't want it, don't buy it. Read the labels.

September 18 2011 at 4:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Corn syrup is cheaper to use so manufacturers love it.

September 17 2011 at 9:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Corn Syrup is a completely natural product like sugar and your body can' tell the difference between them unless you have a sex change operation and then your body doesn't know what it is. Science doesn't lie except when lefties are involved in it or anything to do with global warming. Then lefty scientists lie like dogs and smell worse.

September 17 2011 at 3:32 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
Lucifer Jones

HFCS was so contested in teh 80s cause everyone knew the danger it had. It caused Adhd, Add, mental problems, health problems but guess what.... The FDA got bought off and even though its own member felt it was dangerous they let the bill pass that allowed it to be used instead of Cane sugar. Remember the new coke scandal?????? Again, corporate parasites actually changed ALL sugar to HFCS and replaced cane sugar in candy and soda that same year, people were so stupid and got into the whole new coke sux publicity they never even knew it happened. I cant wait till money is worthless and the corpo and law parasites are in the streets, im gonna get me some payback, cant wait to get ahold of the filth that sold this country out every which way they could

September 17 2011 at 12:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The reason Corn Sugar is so popular these days is the fact that the average consumer blind-fully purchases foods laced with the chemical unbeknown to the them the potential health risks they may incur. Even the educated consumer who is aware of the damage corn syrup can do to their bodies have a hard time purchasing foods that don't contain it simply because its in everything. You can't even buy something as healthy as Whole Wheat bread without corn syrup as an ingredient. When the consumers start demanding healthier foods thats when we will see a change. I only wish it was banned in New York. If hydrogenated oils can be banned, why not this?

September 16 2011 at 10:15 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply