Are You Being Fooled by Sugar?

April 1st, 2013

Would glucose and fructose by any other names taste so sweet?

Sucrose, better known as the white sugar you put in your coffee, is made up of glucose and fructose linked together.  High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has the exact same ingredients, glucose and fructose, but unlike sugar, they’re separate – that is, not linked together at the molecular level.  Given the difference between these two sugary substances, you can imagine the sugar industry’s outrage and horror when the corn industry started calling HFCS “corn sugar.”

The sugar industry was so concerned about commercials like the one above that it filed a lawsuit against the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) and six of its member companies in April 2011 under the Lanham Act.  The suit claims that high fructose corn syrup is making us all fat and that the Corn Refiners Association is engaged in a deceptive advertising campaign to persuade us to consume “corn sugar” instead of sugar sugar.  (Americans consume about 60 pounds of each a year – you’d think that’d be enough to keep both industries happy?)

Here are the main claims and likely defenses as the litigation drags on.

Alleged Deceptive Claim Sugar Industry’s position. Corn Refiners’ defense
HFCS is natural. HFCS is not found in nature and you can’t extract HFCS from an ear of corn.  It is a man-made product that takes two molecular-level transformations to make. FDA policy allows the use of “natural” with any product that doesn’t use added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.
HFCS is corn sugar. Sugar is the natural sucrose found only in sugar cane and sugar beet plants.  Sucrose is an organic disaccharide consisting of equal parts glucose and fructose that are bonded together. Sugar is defined as “any free monosaccharide or disaccharide present in a food,” and HFCS is made up of monosaccharides: glucose and fructose.
Sugar is sugar. HFCS and sugar are chemically different and the body processes HFCS differently than it does sugar. Once table sugar is ingested, the chemical bond in sucrose breaks down and the body ingests glucose and fructose, which are the exact ingredients found in HFCS.

Throwing a bone to the sugar industry, the FDA announced in May 2012 that the Corn Refiners Association cannot call HFCS “corn sugar” for three reasons:  (1) in order to call something a sugar, it must be a solid, and HFCS is (you guessed it) not a solid but a syrup (aka liquid); (2) there’s already a solid corn sweetener named corn sugar, also known as dextrose; and (3) people who are allergic to fructose rely on the current definition of corn sugar to ensure they’re eating dextrose and not fructose.   For these reasons, the FDA could not “authorize ‘corn sugar’ as an alternative common or usual name for HFCS.”

Undeterred by the FDA’s ruling (presumably because the FDA doesn’t have jurisdiction over ads that are not for a specific food product – that’s the FTC’s bailiwick), the Corn Refiners Association has continued to run corn sugar ads like the one featured above.  While an attorney for the sugar industry told The Consumerist that “calling HFCS ‘corn sugar’ betrays a willful, deliberate plan to mislead the public,” the president of the CRA countered by stating that “[t]he FDA did not address or question the scientific evidence that HFCS is nutritionally equivalent to table sugar and that the body can’t tell the difference between one sugar and another.  The continued efforts of the Sugar Association to block our education campaign are nothing more than censorship because they prefer that consumers do not know that HFCS is a sugar.”

Perhaps putting an end to the sugar wars, the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association announced they had settled the 2011 federal court case but the terms of the agreement remain confidential.

Sweet.

This story was updated several times; most recently on 11/23/15. 

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