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Reviled sweetener wants a name change

High-fructose corn syrup industry argues that 'corn sugar' better describes the product, as more food makers flee to sugar.

By Teresa Mears Sep 15, 2010 2:32PM

If baby carrots can change their image, why not high-fructose corn syrup?

It worked for canola oil, once known as low erucic acid rapeseed oil. And then there are the fruits formerly known as prunes, which spruced up their reputation with a name change to dried plums.


The Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to give the much-maligned sweetener a new name: corn sugar.


The industry group argues that the new name is more precise and will limit consumer confusion. CRA president Audrae Erickson explained it this way in a news release:

The term "corn sugar" succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from -- corn.

Even food industry critic Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and the author of the Food Politics blog, thinks the industry has a point. She writes:

Let's give the Corn Refiners credit for calling a sugar a sugar. I would prefer Corn Sugars (plural) to indicate that it is a mixture of glucose and fructose. But as long as they don't call it "natural," the change is OK with me.

Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times explains the difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as high-fructose corn syrup's appeal, in a post at the Well blog:

Table sugar comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beets. High-fructose corn syrup is made essentially by soaking corn kernels to extract corn starch, and using enzymes to turn the glucose in the starch into fructose. The ingredient is a favorite of food makers for practical reasons. Compared with sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup doesn't mask flavors, has a lower freezing point and retains moisture better, which is useful in making foods like chewy granola bars.

We can't tell you definitively that high-fructose corn syrup (or corn sugar) is worse for you than table sugar or honey. Neither can anyone else. (Parker-Pope explains some of the arguments on both sides here.)


I'm with the school of thought that believes it's best to avoid products with high-fructose corn syrup -- not because I am persuaded that the sweetener itself is harmful, but because most products that use it are highly processed foods with minimal nutrition.

Just replacing the sweetener with sugar or honey doesn't make those products any better for you. And that's what a lot of companies are doing, including Sara Lee, Gatorade, Snapple and Hunt's ketchup, AP reported.


The high-fructose corn syrup industry is seeking an image makeover because sales of high-fructose corn syrup are declining along with the product's reputation -- though we don't see any decline in obesity in America.


As part of its PR campaign, the Corn Refiners Association also is running TV commercials that seek to show that opposition to the product formerly known as high-fructose corn syrup is baseless. An FDA decision on whether to change the product's name on food labels is months away.


Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back," says the battle over high-fructose corn syrup (or corn sugar) is the wrong battle. She writes at Appetite for Profit:

So now, the public has decided that HFCS is simply the wrong sweetener. As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better. ... Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It's like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

Do you think changing the name of high-fructose corn syrup will improve its reputation? Do you try to avoid it? Are you more likely to avoid processed products with high-fructose corn syrup and choose those with sugar? Or is everyone missing the point and ignoring the real problem of obesity?


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