Big Corn Wants to Rename HFCS “corn sugar”
08 Oct, 2011
By Anna Soref
A growing number of food shoppers are becoming ingredient-label readers: a quick check for no-nos such as artificial colors, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup decides what will land in the cart.
This health trend seems like a big win for a country on the verge of a health crisis—unless you are Big Corn and HFCS is suffering the lowest sales in its history as a result. To end this growing distrust of HFCS, the Corn Refiners Association is now calling its ubiquitous sweetener “corn sugar” and has filed with the Food and Drug Administration for an official name change.
It’s a deft move by the CRA. Once the evil ingredient du jour, sugar is now preferred to more processed sweeteners such as HFCS, aspartame and Splenda. Of course, whether it’s HFCS or beet and cane sugars, most conventional sweeteners are made from genetically modified crops and aren’t required to be labeled as such.
But because it’s less processed than HFCS, sugar currently wears a health halo that CRA wants to align “corn sugar” with.
The CRA says its name-change motives are simple: to help people understand the sweetener is just the same as sugar. “It has been highly disparaged and highly misunderstood,” Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Association told the New York Times.
“The name `corn sugar’ more accurately reflects the source of the food (corn), identifies the basic nature of the food (a sugar), and discloses the food’s function (a sweetener),” reads the petition that CRA submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for an official name change.
But wait; HFCS is not sugar at all, according to a group of sugar manufacturers and trade organizations. The group, which includes C&H Sugar, has filed a lawsuit accusing the corn industry of wrongly using the term “corn sugar” in place of HFCS in advertisements and elsewhere.
Experts agree that high-fructose corn syrup is definitely not sugar. “The true [FDA] definition of corn sugar is a refined, crystallized dextrose product. Crystallized is the key word here. Nothing about high-fructose corn syrup suggests crystals,” says Kimberly Lord Stewart, industry journalist/analyst and author—Eating Between the Lines (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).
Furthermore, if HFCS gets an official name change, it will only muddy already murky waters surrounding the sweetener. “The change in name will certainly add more confusion to an already confusing issue,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RD, registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist. Many consumers don’t fully understand what HFCS is and will believe that “corn sugar” is something different from the syrup.
Crystal versus syrup is not the issue for most consumers though. The central concern is that HFCS is a processed ingredient with potential health risks. Although the American Medical Association asserts that there is no research indicating HFCS poses significant health risks, initial research indicates otherwise. For example, a study last year at Princeton University found that rats fed HFCS all experienced obesity, vastly differently from those rodents fed sugar.
And HFCS and sugar differ in how the body metabolizes them. “Both HFCS and sucrose contain fructose and glucose, but the 55 percent fructose in HFCS is unbound and ready for utilization, while sucrose’s 50 percent fructose is bound to glucose, which means an extra metabolic step needs to be taken for the body to use it,” explains Todd Runestad, editor in chief, Functional Ingredients magazine.
It is important to note, however, that all added sugars contribute calories to the diet with no nutritional value. “The best direction manufacturers can take is to focus on reducing the amount of added sugars in their products,” Begun says.
How the court will view the corn sugar issue remains to be seen, but some believe the scales are tipped against permission granting for an official name change. “Given that the Corn Refiners Association is already asking for forgiveness rather than permission, by using the name `corn sugar’ and saying sugar is sugar, it could rub regulators the wrong way. FDA director Barbara Schneeman has already voiced her concern about it in letters to the Corn Refiners,” according to Stewart.
In September, lawyers for the CRA filed for a dismissal of the suit, citing that advertising is a form of free speech. The Los Angeles County judge on the case has yet to rule about the dismissal request. The CRA continues to use the term “corn sugar” in its communications.