Some people ask me (namely representatives from the Corn Refiners Association), why do I have such a vendetta against high fructose corn syrup? Are my claims accurate? Is my blanket dismissal even fair? Well, at this point, I feel less of an antipathy against the highly processed golden syrup than I once did, and more of a staunch dismissiveness to the idea of it. I reserve any disdain, or dislike for those who, instead of focusing on making a better product (or at least owning up to its many drawbacks) take on increasingly evasive, elaborate and cynical measures to repackage said product and sell it back to the unwitting consumer.
Case in point: the seeming phoenix-like, PR savvy, rebirth of “corn sugar” out of the treacle-like ashes of the popularly maligned high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). At this point, the people have spoken. HFCS, while still widely consumed (The average American ate 35.7 pounds of high fructose corn syrup last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down 21 percent from 45.4 pounds from ten years before.), is not exactly a well-received additive in our food supply. Consumers have become aware of the ubiquity of the sweetener, as well as its potential impact on the health of those who consume it, and they don’t like it. Manufacturers (some, not all) have listened and have smartly removed it from their products. Gatorade, Sara Lee, Snapple and Hunt’s Ketchup all dumped HFCS in the last year and switched over to the devil you know, sugar. So now, with the country all abuzz over the evils of HFCS, what is a corn refiner to do? Jump ship and start refining sugar? Improve the existing product to the extent that it no longer presents the same health concerns that helped to demonize it in the first place? Or just re-brand the product and claim it is indistinguishable from sugar in everyway?
Get ready for Corn Sugar. As I reported back in May, the Corn Refiners Association had petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow a name change to the simpler, less-chemical-y “corn syrup.” The FDA gave the petition the thumbs up, but (no surprise here) after an objection from the Corn Refiners’ rival, the Sugar Association, F.D.A. officials sent another letter saying that they needed to give the matter further thought. So now, as a bit of marketing jujitsu (or just a slap in the face to our sugar-coated friends) HFCS is now, the new and improved, “corn sugar.”
This sort of re-branding is hardly rare (“low eurcic acid rapeseed oil” became the all-purpose “canola oil” in 1988), but the whole “corn sugar” masquerade seems utterly cynical, as if consumers will somehow shun the syrup and accept the sugar. The “corn sugar” campaign is indeed savvy, with the repackaging of HFCS (and it is simply a repackaging, not at all a reformulation) as sugar, the Corn Refiners Association can now claim (as they do in their new ad campaign) that, “sugar is sugar.” Isn’t this what we all want? Life to be so simple that it is boiled down to these elemental truths?
Now the Sugar Association is likely pretty displeased by all of this, but really, should they be? The hullabaloo surrounding HFCS has greatly increased the market share, and appeal, of refined sugar – almost recasting it as a natural, nostalgic and highly preferable product to HFCS. And the whole tag of “sugar is sugar” slyly skirts the issue that while sugar might be sugar, sugar is still exceedingly bad for you. The notion that anything natural is healthy—and anything artificial is not—seems entirely deluded when it comes to added sweeteners. The message here should be drastic moderation over all, and unyielding consumer vigilance without exception.
Until we have a handle on all of this, we get to stand on the sidelines and watch the sugar mafias battle it out for the hearts and waistlines of the American public.