FDA Gives an Insulin Shot In the Arm to Corn Syrup Critics

Corn refinery"What's in a name? That which we call high-fructose corn syrup
By any other name would taste as sweet."
-- With apologies to William Shakespeare

If you ask America's Corn Refiners Association, it seems they put quite a lot of stock in a name. For years, the CRA has been trying to get the Food and Drug Administration to OK renaming high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, "corn sugar."

They lost that battle last week, when the FDA rejected their request. As a representative of the actual sugar industry exulted: "Sugar is sugar! HFCS is not sugar."

But why is this a big deal for the corn lobby?

HFCS has earned a fair bit of a stigma. It's blamed by many experts for contributing to the epidemic of obesity. One city in particular, which shall go nameless (although its initials are NYC), has even tried to reduce consumption of the stuff by banning the sale of large sodas.

Sticks and Stones

People may hate HFCS, but who could hate good ol' fashioned (corn) sugar? It's practically a staple in American pantries.

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From the cereal we eat in the morning to the toasted BLT we have for lunch, to the evening aperitif of Coca-Cola -- it's hard to find a product on grocers' shelves that doesn't contain at least a small dollop of the stuff.

HFCS manufacturers such as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, and Ingredion (INGR), will tell you this is all just fine. Chemically speaking, they say, HFCS is indistinguishable from "natural" sugar. And if the goose doesn't bite you, the gander shouldn't either.

Regardless, so many people have been spooked by HFCS that firms ranging from Starbucks (SBUX) to PepsiCo (PEP) to ConAgra Foods (CAG) have begun switching to real sugar in certain products, and labeling them "no high-fructose corn syrup" in the hopes that this will goose sales.

Time for a Real Solution

Like the sugar/HFCS conflict, obesity is a sticky problem. Labeling HFCS a "fat-maker" -- and making that label stick -- may help to solve it. But there's a simpler way:

Over the last 15 years, American taxpayers spent $77.1 billion subsidizing the corn industry (versus $242 million on sugar beets). End these subsidies, and the price of HFCS just might rise enough that companies will stop spraying it on every morsel we eat -- and save us some tax dollars in the process.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of PepsiCo and Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of PepsiCo and Starbucks, creating a diagonal call position in PepsiCo, and writing covered calls on Starbucks.

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