Yesterday, after years of debate, the United States Food and Drug Administration finally denied a petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) to change the name of high fructose corn syrup, ruling that HFCS cannot be legally relabeled “corn sugar.” The CRA originally submitted a petition to be allowed to change the name on food ingredient labels in September of 2010.
The corn industry lobby began pushing for a legal rebranding of their favorite low-cost, highly processed substitute for traditional table sugar after several scientific studies called the health effects of HFCS into question.
In 2007, a Rutgers University study found that, in comparison with sodas sweetened with traditional sugar (sucrose), sodas sweetened with HFCS contained up to ten times more harmful carbonyl compounds –substances previously linked to serious health complications in people with diabetes. In 2009, two separate U.S. studies found trace amounts of poisonous mercury in a high percentage of HFCS samples — left over from the complicated chemical processing treatments used to turn corn into HFCS. And in March of 2010, a study at Princeton University found that rats fed HFCS gained significantly more weight than rats fed water sweetened with table sugar.
In response, the CRA launched an all-out campaign to rebrand processed corn syrup as an all-natural, healthy alternative to table sugar. In addition to the FDA petition, the CRA pushed a press release to major media announcing their new campaign website, originally called “CornSugar.com.” The site is now called SweetSurprise — click to enjoy the sweet surprise of industry-funded food science propaganda. SweetSurprise declares “High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar” and claims that “Eating sugar in moderation can be a healthy part of your diet.”
In conjunction with launching the corn sugar campaign website, in a now infamous-on-the-internet move, the CRA contacted a group of mom bloggers through MomCentral, and offered to pay the bloggers (in WalMart gift certificates) to repeat the CRA’s ”corn sugar” campaign message on their blogs. Several prominent bloggers responded loudly and negatively to the marketing move, which garnered perhaps a somewhat different sort of publicity than the CRA had hoped for.
At the same time the CRA released a series of television commercials touting HFCS as being no different from table sugar derived from sugar cane, featuring actors playing concerned parents who had done research on HFCS and “discovered” the CRA party line: “your body can’t tell the difference” and “sugar is sugar.” The commercials prompted another social media backlash and almost immediately inspired clever spoofs, including this one:
In response to criticism, the CRA disabled embedding of the commercial videos on websites not under their control (but you can still watch them at the CRA YouTube Channel).
Since the CRA campaign began, more studies have come out linking HFCS to potential health problems, including a study from the University of Colorado School of Medicine that showed drinking sodas high in HFCS leads to an immediate increase in blood pressure greater than that caused by sugar-sweetened sodas, and a study published in the journal Clinical Epigenetics that found a potential link between HFCS consumption and autism.
But the FDA’s decision to deny the CRA’s request to rebrand HFCS as corn sugar does not appear to have been based on the substance’s potential for negative health effects — instead, the FDA asserted in yesterday’s letter that:
FDA’s regulations permit the term “sugar” as part of the name for food that is solid, dried, and crystallized [. . .]FDA’s regulations provide for the terms “syrup” or “sirup” for food that is liquid or is an aqueous solution [. . .] FDA’s approach is consistent with the common understanding of sugar and syrup as referenced in a dictionary.
In other words, syrup is syrup, sugar is sugar, and the FDA thinks that perhaps the CRA should consult a dictionary.
Disclosure: in addition to her work at Care2, the author of this post is a colleague of the author of Mom-101, Liz Gumbinner, linked above in reference to blogger reactions to the CRA’s social media campaign targeting mothers with blogs.
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Photo of sugar by Lauri Andler, from Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license.