FDA Says No to Corn Sugar

Sorry, Big Ag. Turns out you can’t call high-fructose corn syrup ‘corn sugar.’

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Things turned sour for the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) yesterday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration denied its request to rename high-fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.” Why? According to the FDA, sugar is a solid, dried and crystallized food. High-fructose corn syrup? Not so much. Turns out it has a pesky viscous problem that makes it a syrup, not a sugar. Oh, and by the way, says the FDA, the term “corn sugar” was claimed in the marketplace 30 years ago by dextrose. For those who have a hereditary fructose intolerance, they rely on the term to identify foods they can eat. Sorry!

The news immediately sparked dueling press releases between the CRA and the Sugar Association, which have been locked in a fierce lawsuit over whether or not fructose and glucose qualify as just plain old sugar, and whether or not the CRA is misleading consumers with its marketing campaign.

“[The FDA’s action] reaffirms what most consumer advocates, health experts and policy officials have been saying all along: only sugar is sugar. HCFS is not sugar. The next step is for the federal court to end the CRA’s misleading propaganda campaign,” says the Sugar Association.

But Audrae Erickson, president of the CRA, only conceded that the FDA denied their request on “narrow technical grounds” and said in her statement that the agency did not address “the overwhelming scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is a form of sugar and is nutritionally the same as other sugars.”

Neither side of the sugar war is an innocent bystander. The call to action over our nation’s obesity epidemic has long been sounded, yet the Sugar Association’s website continues to claim sugar’s contribution to obesity is overstated, and the “rash of inaccurate reports about all-natural sugar” were amplified by CRA’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. While the CRA points to “consumer confusion” over HFCS as one of the reasons it petitioned the FDA for a name change, some of that confusion stretches all the way back to 2008, with the association’s own “Changing the Conversation about High Fructose Corn Syrup” campaign, which, in the end, did little to clear up the sweetener’s tainted image.

What’s clear is when muddled definitions of sucrose, glucose, and fructose get batted around, consumers often end up the losers. We like nutrition expert Marion Nestle’s explanation back in December best:

“Sucrose is glucose and fructose linked together. HFCS is glucose and fructose separated. Both are sugars (note: plural). Sucrose is extracted from sugar beets and cane in a series of boiling, extracting, and cleaning steps. HFCS does the same from corn, but uses one more enzyme, so it is somewhat less “natural,” but so what?

“Both are sugars and empty calories, and everyone would be better off eating less of both.”

Indeed. Sadly, this bitter fight over something sweet isn’t going away any time soon.

Do you agree or disagree with the FDA’s decision?

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