by Marion Nestle
Sep 21 2011

Corn Refiners Association to FDA: we will call HFCS “corn sugar” whether you like it or not

 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, and

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.

  • Know your enemy. If you care about nutrition, you will know what to avoid. Most could care less.

  • Anthro

    60 – 120 lbs of sweetener! Mon Dieu!

    I’m lucky to buy two 5 lb bags a year–and I think some of those bags have shrunk to 4 (or even 3) lbs.

    How do these people sleep at night? I am referring not only to the HFCS promoters, but also, literally, to the people who are eating all that sugar?

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  • Donnie

    For all of us who are allergic to corn, we will avoid HFCS no matter what the company wants to call it. Just so long as corn is somewhere in the name on the labels, to warn us that it is made from allergenic corn, and not the much safer cane sugar. If corn is fed to cattle to fatten them up for market, what is it doing to people? Think about it.

  • ckc

    I’m wondering if the issue is that the FDA does not regulate advertising, only nutritional labels. So, perhaps this is actually the FTC’s jurisdiction?

  • Cynthia1770

    HFCS has about the same amount of fructose as table sugar.
    As you read this, please grab a calculator and follow along.
    When HFCS was first developed, it was an expensive process and
    the CRA had to find the minimum amount of fructose that would
    be as sweet as the gold standard, sucrose. That formula was HFCS-42. (42% fructose:58% glucose). This makes sense, that less than 50% fructose in a fructose-glucose mixture would be
    as sweet as 50% fructose in a bound molecule. (Bakers and candymakers have long known that heat or acid treatment of sucrose splits the molecule unleashing fructose’s full sweetening power.) For whatever reason— production problems, cost saving for food manufactures, HFCS-42 was not the formula that was shipped to Big Soda in 1984 when
    they made their switch to HFCS. The formula was HFCS-55. (55%fructose: 45% glucose.) Have your calculator handy? Divide
    55/42= 1.309. That means the CRA boosted the fructose 30%
    past the sucrose sweetness level to make HFCS-55.

    Most people look at HFCS-55 and say, hmmm. 55% fructose compared to 50% fructose in table sugar. That’s easy, it’s
    55/50= 1.1 or a 10% difference. But that’s not what your body “sees”. The problem arises when you realize that in any two component solution when you increase one component , by definition, you must decrease the other. You can only have 100% total. When you ingest HFCS:55, your liver sees 55%fructose:45% glucose which is 55/45 = 22% more fructose than glucose in every soda you drink.

    Last year, a USC lab collected samples of soda, both fountain and bottled, and had them analyzed for fructose content. (I believe you commented on this research ) They also threw in a Coke from Mexico. Some samples of bottled national brand soda had 65% fructose. The Mexican Coke came in close to the mark at 48% fructose. This survey came from a peer reviewed paper, not a court of law; however, if kids in LA are drinking HFCS-65. Please grab your calculator again. They are drinking 65/50= 30% more fructose than found in table sugar, and since HFCS-65 is 65% fructose: 35% glucose, their liver is “seeing” 85% more
    fructose than glucose.

    Cornsweet90, an ADM product, is used for sweetening low cal foods and beverages. The fructose content in Cornsweet90 = 90% fructose:10% glucose.

    It would appear that the CRA has monkeyed around with the
    HFCS formula with callous disregard for public health.
    Since HFCS is only a blend of fructose and glucose, the
    CRA can manipulate the ratio any way they desire.The ingredient HFCS is a black box. As a consumer I am guaranteed of nothing. If the name morphs into “corn sugar”, it is worse. I
    won’t know if that means… corn syrup, corn syrup solids, HFCS-42, HFCS-55,
    HFCS-65, HFCS-90…..

    Please don’t disseminate this ‘HFCS is about the same as
    table sugar’. Your esteemed work and name are highly valued by
    your readership.

  • Ben Boom

    Cynthia, that’s interesting; thanks.

  • Ms.M

    Cynthia-Your clarification is helpful to many readers. Thank you.

  • Dan

    It should be pointed out, perhaps, that if we just compare fructose to glucose ratios within the total sugar, we find:

    apple = HFCS-71
    broccoli = HFCS-58
    grape = HFCS-53
    orange = HFCS-53
    pear = HFCS-69
    pineapple = HFCS-54
    strawberry = HFCS-55
    watermelon = HFCS-68

    So, for many “natural,” “whole” sources of sugars the ratio of fructose:glucose is in line with with that seen in HFCS and not 50:50 (which is, of course, the reason why the baked products in your local health food store use concentrated apple juice, rather than sucrose or HFCS). Thus, one might argue that the ratio isn’t as important as the total sugar/volume or sugar concentration. Or if one persists in the belief that 50:50 ratios are the preferred food source for the body, one might sillily argue that, if we are to consume sugar, we should pick processed sucrose over most fruits.

  • Windy Daley

    The human body evolved knowing fruit as the natural way to consume sugar. Fruit has many nutrients, as well as fiber.
    High fructose corn syrup (regardless of percentages) is synthesized from genetically altered corn–corn that bugs and microorganisms refuse to consume. High fructose is the perfect example of a modern pseudo-food that is addictive and unknown to the body in such form. If genes were changed as much as HFCS, then a human might become a slug or a banana.

    Do you really think that the corn refiners personally consume that artificial red drink (from their commercials) and give it to their children? Or do they just expect other Americans to feed it to their children?

    We can free ourselves from corporate fast food slavery by giving up high fructose corn syrup and the highly processed foods that contain it–and quit eating at fast food restaurants that serve pseudo-foods. We can read labels and choose to reject this synthetic sugar as well as other chemicals added to our foods.

    Thanks Cynthia for your math. The corn refiners definitely wish to keep their slaves. It’s bad enough that the propaganda is indirectly paid for by tax dollars through subsidies. The people are paying for their own brainwashing.

    We must choose to love our children enough to feed them real food.

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  • Dan

    Windy, while the consumption of GMO foods is a contentious issue for many, what’s the value in spreading demonstrably false information:

    * “[HFCS] is synthesized from genetically altered corn–corn that bugs and microorganisms refuse to consume.” Studies have demonstrated, in fact, the opposite. See, for example, DOI:10.1007/s11248-008-9207-2, 10.1016/j.biocontrol.2011.03.008, 10.1017/S1742758408201682, 10.1603/EC09247. In the cases, where your assertion appears to be true, it is true because that species was specifically designed to be resistant to said organisms, or were resistant to carriers of said organisms.

    *”High fructose is the perfect example of a modern pseudo-food that is addictive.” If HFCS is addictive, it is addictive simply because it IS sugar. However, in the literature the existence of sugar addiction is heavily debated, and if a sugar addiction syndrome does exist, it appears to be limited to a very small population, suggesting a varient intrinsic to that population, rather than some aspect of sugar that is intrinsically addictive.

    *”If genes were changed as much as HFCS, then a human might become a slug or a banana.” This is also patently false. Most GMO feature the change or addition of one or two genes (, far less than the differences seen between species. In fact, far less the differences between parent and sibling or sibling and sibling.

    I understand people’s hate for the processed food industry. I, myself, am no apologist for the processed food industry, but what does one gain from spreading falsehoods? If this is simply a result of ignorance, I’d suggest we, as a country, spend some money/effort making sure our ALL children have solid backgrounds in basic genetics, chemistry, and especially statistics.

  • Cindi

    They’re doing it in places besides commercials already. Next time you are in the store take a look at Oscar Mayer’s Carving Board lunch meats’ ingredients; cultured corn sugar.

    I realize that according to the FDA cultured corn sugar is a term with a specific definition that has nothing to do with HFCS, but I find it odd that 1) I never saw it on an ingredients list prior to the CRA’s campaign to rehabilitate the image of HFCS & request FDA approval to change the name of HFCS & 2) when Kraft/Oscar Mayer’s customer service representatives were specifically asked if cultured corn sugar was HFCS they said “yes, it is”. You would think if it wasn’t the same thing they’d be very careful to train the customer service representatives to let people know that since there is such a bad perception of HFCS.

  • Windy Daley

    To Dan,
    In reference to the differences in percentages, I was referring to the differences in the percentages of fructose to glucose–quite a difference–and by the way, the two sugars are not bonded—and are not a natural food. I wasn’t speaking of the actual DNA of the genetically altered plants. Sorry you did not get it, and perhaps it was an unfair comparison. However, my words are not “falsehoods.” Foods are chemically combined to cause addictions.

    I’m a health teacher, who has also taught biology and chemistry. I have also worked on a research team studying brain chemistry and addictions (on rats, not humans). (That’s how I know personally that research can be quite biased). I know how statistics can be manipulated to prove just about anything—because it depends on how it’s presented—and because, unfortunately, I was a part of it for a while.

    I also observe firsthand how overweight and unhealthy the children of this country are–and yes, those foods are extremely addictive. The potato chip ads say it so perfectly: “Becha can’t eat just one!” (From my observations, about seventy percent of the females at the high school are overweight or obese). The kids are fast food slaves—and don’t even realize that they are in slavery.

    A person I know gave up cigarettes by rolling her own from regular tobacco–and it was much easier because added chemicals were not in the “homemade” cigarettes.
    Most of the children of this country consume fast food for breakfast and for lunch (at school). You should have seen what most of them ate today—I even saved some of the wrappers for my personal research. And then many go to a fast food restaurant with their parents for supper.
    “Becha can’t eat just one!”

    I don’t hate the fast food companies; I see them as health terrorists. I’m alarmed at what’s happening to the children of this country. And you speak of children getting “solid backgrounds in basic genetics, chemistry, and especially statistics.” The children are being poisoned from the inside out.

    I tell you what, Dan, before you go and accuse someone of spreading falsehoods, go sign up to substitute teach for a high school. Observe what the students eat before they enter those chemistry classes in the mornings—and see how they act after their sugary, nitrate laden, artificially flavored pseudo-food lunches.

    Dan, you are telling a soldier in the trenches to “be concerned because the bullets are not real.” Most of the teenagers in this country are addicted to fast foods. Watch “Super Size Me.” Dan, relax…go stand by a bayou near an industrial complex—like the one near my home—and smell the water and air—and have a bag of chips. “Becha can’t eat just one!”

    Some day, what’s happening in the food industry of this country will be compared to the way the tobacco companies whined when the research started appearing. Someday, this time will be called something like the “Fast Food Holocaust.”

    Dan, speaking of falsehoods, the fast food industry has millions of dollars to spread their propaganda. How much of that artificial red drink from the corn refiners’ commercials do you consume each day—and give to your children? Which one of the companies do you work for?

  • Windy Daley

    To Dan,
    Please correct the quotation in the third to last paragraph to “not be concerned…” Thanks.

    I meant what I said about substitute teaching. Quit worrying about all the debating going on—go out into the trenches—and observe for yourself. See what’s really happening.

    One seasoned teacher told me, “I always watch the new teachers, and those that eat in the cafeteria gain weight the first year–and usually keep gaining.”

    Don’t wait for rat research. See what’s happening in the schools with real human beings. Do the research on yourself. Give up high fructose corn syrup, and the fast foods it’s in. Eat real for two months (no cheating, no fast food). Experience how you feel. Life’s an adventure.

    “Becha can’t eat just one!”

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