FDA's Corny Situation

February 19/Washington/Congressional Quarterly Weekly -- When corn refiners asked the FDA last September to allow food companies to change the name of their signature product from "high fructose corn syrup" to "corn sugar," they said it would clear up consumer confusion. High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener like any other, the Corn Refiners Association said, and not especially high in fructose, which is a particularly sweet form of sugar often blamed for increasing obesity in the United States.

Public health advocates, though, say the refiners are just trying to duck bad publicity from all the high fructose corn syrup used in many sodas, candies and other sweets. A University of Southern California study last year, for example, found that fructose levels in soda were higher than advertised. The bad publicity has prompted some brands such as Snapple and Gatorade to stop using the corn syrup.

"The FDA should not play spin doctor for the corn refining industry," says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. Her group, along with former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's Shape Up America organization, were among those filing comments this month opposing the petition.

However, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, says her intention is to allow consumers to more easily understand the ingredients in products. To imply, as Greenberg does, that high fructose corn syrup is less healthful than other sugars is simply not true, she says.

The name high fructose corn syrup, in fact, came into vogue in the 1970s as a means of distinguishing the sweeter product from regular corn syrup. The FDA approved its use in 1983, and it is widely used because it costs less than sugar.

At least one prominent public health advocate says all the hullabaloo over the name is overstated. "Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same," says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The bottom line is that people should consume less of all added sugars."

From the March 7, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition