The Fight to Change the Name of High Fructose Corn Syrup

The Corn Refiners Association, a group that protects the interests of HFCS makers, is trying to change the product's name to "corn sugar"

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I worry a lot about the ability of the FDA to set limits on the excess marketing practices of food companies. The latest cause for worry is the seemingly trivial fuss over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

HFCS is not especially high in fructose (its fructose content is about the same as that of table sugar) but the term has gotten a bad reputation and food companies have begun to replace this sweetener with table sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association, the trade association that protects the interests of the makers of HFCS thinks it can solve that problem by getting the FDA to allow a name change from HFCS to "corn sugar" (see my previous comments on this issue). The FDA has this request under consideration.

In the meantime, the Corn Refiners are using "corn sugar" in advertisements on two websites, cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the FDA is taking a dim view of this behavior. In a letter seen by the AP (but which I cannot find on the FDA website), the FDA has asked the Corn Refiners to cease and desist using "corn sugar" until the term receives regulatory approval.

According to the AP account, which I have been unable to verify, the FDA:

Has no regulatory control over the corn association's advertising because it is not selling a product but promoting an industry. The federal agency can prosecute companies that incorrectly label ingredients and [FDA official Barbara] Schneeman wrote that the FDA may launch enforcement action against food companies listing high fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar."

The AP also said that internal FDA documents "indicate high-level skepticism" over the proposed name change.

This, no doubt, is because "corn sugar" already exists as a regulatory term for dextrose which, in turn, is another name for the sugar, glucose, derived from corn.

The AP says:

Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, wrote in an internal email that a previous attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just "corn syrup" was misleading, could have robbed consumers of important information and would invite ridicule. "It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it," Taylor told colleagues in an email dated March 15, 2010.

Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar is about marketing, not public health. If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.

Image: AP/Seth Perlman.

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This post also appears on Food Politics.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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