What's in a name? Plenty, if the name has anything to do with sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rejected a request by corn-refining giants to change the name of the widely used and widely despised food ingredient "high-fructose corn syrup" to "corn sugar."
The sweetener is cheap and sweet, which is why it's widely used in snack foods, condiments and soft drinks. Critics, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say those sugary snacks and drinks are contributing to the nation's obesity problem. Bloomberg's answer is to ban large sugary drinks.
Of course, changing the name won't make the sugar any less sweet. Or any less fattening, for that matter. But it's a tried-and-try public relations gimmick: change the name of an offending product or substance and hope no one remembers. The Corn Refiners Association -- which includes such industry giants as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. -- has been trying to do just that for years. It formally sought the name change in a petition to the FDA in 2010.
The FDA said the corny p.r. group didn't provide sufficient grounds for a name change. And besides, said the FDA, it defines sugar as "a solid, dried and crystallized food," while syrup is a "liquid food." High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid, it should be noted.
But not wanting to put all their corn in one bin, the Corn Refiners have been fighting on another front as well, just in case the name-change ploy went sour. the trade group has been running a series of controversial TV commercials, basically saying "sugar is sugar" and claiming "your body can't tell the difference" between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar.
This doesn't go over well with the sugar farmers, as you might suppose, and several of them filed a federal lawsuit against the fructose claims. A federal judge found the farmers showed "a reasonable probability of success on their argument that the statements are false" but the case is likely to remain solidly in the courts for a bit longer before it dissolves fully.
The farmers argue that the fructose refiners are putting out false product claims, and hurting the natural sugar industry.
"Enough is enough," said sugar farmer attorney Mark Lanier. "Neither HFCS nor fructose is the same as sucrose, what consumers know as sugar, and has been a part of diets for more than 2,000 years."
"Consumers need the facts about how sweeteners differ chemically and how the body can tell the difference between them. The Sugar Association seeks to educate consumers and encourages the media and researchers to embrace a scientific dialogue based on facts and not scare tactics," Lanier said.
Too much already
But while the arguments about what's sugar and what's not rage on, the fact remains that -- whatever it is -- we're probably eating too much of it.
"So many things have happened in our environment in the past fifty years, from a total increase in calories to a decrease in activity — it’s absurd to pin the entire obesity problem on a single food such as fructose or even sugar consumption as a whole," said David Klerfeld, a national program leader in Human Nutrition for the USDA." Why aren’t we focusing on ginormous portions rather than wasting time looking at single ingredients?"
So the debate over HFCS and all-natural sugur looms on, and more TV commercials and lawsuits are probably soon to follow. But consumers can also remember that using a food sweetener isn't a law, and many foods and drinks consumed actually don't need sugar. Natural or man-made.