by Marion Nestle
Apr 29 2011

Sugar politics in action: Sugar sues HFCS

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports: the Western Sugar Cooperative has just filed suit against the Corn Refiners and corn processors to stop them for falsely advertising HFCS as “corn sugar.”

Oh please.  Western Sugar is trying to claim that HFCS is not sugar, when it most definitely is.  To sugar associations, which represent cane and beet producers, sugar means sucrose (the white stuff on the table).

When the Sugar Association threatened to sue me for saying that soft drinks had sugar and nothing else (when they also contained HFCS), I patiently explained the biochemistry.  If you would like to read what they said, I’ve posted the threatening letter and my response at the bottom of this link. Here’s the biochemistry:

  • Sucrose: a double sugar of 50% glucose and 50% fructose linked together
  • HFCS: a syrup of about 45% glucose and 55% fructose, separated

The 5% differences are biologically insignificant and the body can’t tell them apart.

I never heard from the Sugar Association again, but I try to to remember to say sugars, plural.

Whether the FDA should allow the defendants to change the name of HFCS to Corn Sugar is a matter of some debate (see previous posts and comments on them).  The FDA will make its decision in due course.

In the meantime, this lawsuit is about marketing competition among sources of sugars (plural).  It has nothing to do with health.

  • Suzanne

    Very, very interesting exchange in the letters. I need input on a question regarding sugar. I read recently that HFCS is especially harmful to the body because it is metabolized in the liver, and turns to triglycerides. Is sucrose (cane and beet sugars) processed the same way?

  • Subvert

    Awesome – industry has adopted the spectacular tactics of our government legislators! Just sue and accuse and enthrall the masses in your tit for tat while absolutely nothing changes.

  • Doc Mudd

    “It has nothing to do with health.”

    Nutritional biochemist Nestle “patiently explains” sugar is sugar is sugar, but food industry basher Nestle opposes accurately identifying sugar as sugar by name on any food label:

    Food politics are a little confusing…at least as practiced by tenured NYU professors. Flip flop flippity flippity flop flop flippity flop – damn the science, are our book sales sufficient? Heck, I can flip-flop all day if it sells books.

    You read it here first: “It has nothing to do with health.”

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  • John Jezl

    One thing that I haven’t seen addressed yet on this topic (not just here, but in any article I have read) is that the term “corn sugar” is already in common usage. And it is currently being used as a term for powered dextrose/glucose (or at least dextrose derived from corn startch, I guess)… which is most definitely NOT what corn syrup is.

    Dextrose is used commonly in things such as beer making (homebrewing in particular) and suasage making, where a change in composition from 100% glucose to part glucose, part fructose would be very detrimenal to the end product, as well as having health impacts.

    For this reason, in my mind “It has nothing to do with health.” is incorrect. Replacing the term HFCS with Corn Sugar is detrimental.

    Have you seen this issue address within the context of this debate?

  • Doc Mudd,

    She is referring to the lawsuit not having anything to do with health, not her stance on sugar. Ain’t no floppin here! Us food fascists are just too closed minded to ever change our minds about anything, you should know that by now Doc Mudd.

    The irony here is that someday when people start to see sugar as the toxic substance it really is, and not just empty calories, the Western Sugar Cooperative will be asking the FDA to call it something else. I’ll put money on it.

    A great article on sugar recently in the New York Times for anyone who is interested.

  • Lisa

    How is it that the most recent information the sugar association has on the health effects of sugar is from 10 years ago in 2001? I believe they are doing a grave disservice to all of the biomedical researchers studying this topic over the past 10 years.

  • Joe


    If sugar is toxic as you assert then why is the main energy source for human life glucose (sugar)? This is somewhat like blaming global warming on carbon emmissions much of which comes from humans as a by product of glucose metabolism.

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  • Benboom

    John, if you feed a troll it will just make it come back sooner.

  • john

    Joe, actually what I’m saying is it’s like putting rocket fuel into a moped.
    Just because they both use petrochemical based fuels doesn’t mean they run on the same type of fuel.

    All sugar is not the same, they are metabolized differently depending on the source.

    Our obesity and diabetes epidemics are directly linked to too much processed sugar in out diets, not from eating too much fruit.

  • fuzzy

    We eliminated products with HFCS in them from our diet. Within 3 months we were both healthier feeling and according to my doctor I was in significantly better health than we had been. Later that month we ate junk food and drank sodas at a party and both of us felt ill afterward. After over two years of being off HFCS now, and experiencing dizziness, headaches, and stomach/intestinal upset those few times I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind, it’s gonna be hard to convince me that there isn’t some kind of difference in consuming them.

  • @Joe, no offense intended, but you should probably go read some basic biochemistry on “sugar”. The general term “sugar” refers to a general class of chemicals. Some sugars are monosaccharides. Glucose and fructose are in this group. Some sugars are disaccharides. Sucrose (table sugar) is in this group- one molecule of sucrose is one molecule of glucose linked to one molecule of fructose.

    There are people making arguments that fructose-containing sugars like sucrose and HFCS are “toxic”- i.e., more harmful than just empty calories, due to the details of how the body metabolizes fructose. These arguments are by no means generally accepted, but they do have some basis in scientific evidence.

    I haven’t seen anyone argue that glucose, which you correctly point out is a primary “fuel” in cells, is toxic in this way.

    I wonder how much of the current confusion about “sugar” is a byproduct of the unfortunate naming conventions? Without some basic organic chemistry and/or biochemistry, “sugar” can be a very confusing term.

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  • David Hardingham

    Sucrose: a double sugar of 50% glucose and 50% fructose linked together and safe and natural together
    Breaking them apart changes there nature just like salt is broken apart, chlorine and sodium is totally different and not at all the same.
    Free fructose has an open receptor which robs iron copper and magnesium and it nature it carbonyls when in the body fool the body into becoming diabetic

  • Daniel K, Ithaca, NY

    HFCS. Call it sugar, sugars. Don’t matta too much. It’s just time we as United States tax-payers stop subsidizing it!

  • Clemi

    I’m not sure if someone has already pointed this out, but as someone who has Fructose Malabsorption it is very important to have descriptive labelling that differentiates sugars and it becomes a very serious health issue when foods do not have informative labelling. While most people will not experience any reaction to sugars from different food sources, Fructmal sufferers cannot easily digest HFCS because of the imbalanced fructose to glucose ratio and it causes a range of mild to extreme symptoms that affect quality of life.

  • Just read the legal letter they sent to you, I’ve been threatened with legal action by lawyers that clearly havn’t got a clue about the specific industry and it was quite clear they were wrong.

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