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

high fructose corn syrup renamed corn sugar
high fructose corn syrup renamed corn sugar

When 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.

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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.