by Marion Nestle
Dec 1 2011

Sugar vs. HFCS, continued

The increasingly absurd fight between the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) seems never to end.

Trade associations representing growers of sugar cane and sugar beets (sucrose–the white stuff on the table) have gone to court to charge that corporate members of the Corn Refiners Association (HFCS) are behind a “conspiracy” deliberately designed to “deceive the public.”  Why?  Because—in an equally absurd move—they want to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar. 

The sucrose-growers lawsuit argues Corn Refiners conspired to engage in false advertising as part of a $50 million campaign to promote HFCS by changing its name to “corn sugar,” thereby implying that HFCS is equivalent to “real” sugar from cane and beet plants.

Oh please.  Sucrose is glucose and fructose linked together.  HFCS is glucose and fructose separated.  Both are sugars (note: plural).  Sucrose is extracted from sugar beets and cane in a series of boiling, extracting, and cleaning steps.  HFCS does the same from corn, but uses one more enzyme so is somewhat less “natural,” but so what?

Both are sugars and empty calories, and everyone would be better off eating less of both.

What’s really at issue here is the encroachment of HFCS into sucrose territory.  Americans used to eat much more sucrose than HFCS.  Now we consume about 60 pounds of each of them a year—way too much of either.

My opinion: the name change is frivolous and so is the lawsuit. 

Both are a waste of time and distract from the real message: eat less sugar(s).

  • I couldn’t agree more! Of course it is a battle for power and revenue and at no point do these companies think about their consumers. If this world is to change for the better ALL companies and governments need to treat their consumers and voters with love and respect. I’ve been using dates and maple to sweeten bakes for a while, and not xylitol. Coconut sugar and palm sugar are being shipped to me as we speak. I guess each of us can make a difference to the world with our buying choices. WE can remove the power of the big boys. ~Thank you for highlighting this today. Good job! 😉

  • Is this any significant? I don’t understand,the fight between the two association ,in my opinion,is just wasting time and ridiculous actually,i want to lose weight

  • ckc

    Hi Dr. N-

    I think there is an element missing from the sugar vs. HFCS fight – and that is invert sugar. When soda makers switch back to sugar, they are likely switching back to invert sugar, not sucrose which is more like high fructose cane/beet sugar than sucrose. More info on invert sugar here:

  • Marion, it’s bonkers. We covered the issue in October and put together a video to show the infamous commercial (“sugar is sugar!”) alongside the details of the lawsuit.

    Clearly, neither organization has the public health interest in mind.


  • What I think it shows is that the American public sees sugar as harmless, empty calories and wholesome like a plate of grandma’s cookies and the Corn Refiners what in on that. They wouldn’t be waist deep in a lawsuit and spending millions on ads proclaiming that sugar is sugar. The issues involved in the lawsuit may be dumb, but the suit is not frivolous. There is a lot of money at stake. Because American’s don’t believe that sugar is bad for you, but they believe HFCS is.

    That’s why it was frustrating to see someone like David Katz MD come to the defense of sugar in the Huffington Post after Gary Taubes NYT article on Lustig’s fructose hypothesis. (And I realize that mentioning the name Taubes is like waving a red cape in front of a bull for some people. Please don’t let that be a distraction from my overall point.)

    Sugar seems to me to be more detrimental to our health than mere empty calories. It seems to play a critical role in the development of metabolic syndrome – and when we are talking about the obesity epidemic, we are really talking about a metabolic syndrome epidemic. The Taubes article also outlined how it is becoming implicated in the development of certain cancers. And sugar seems to be the “active ingredient” in the trio of sugar, fat and salt that results in hyper-rewarding foods at the center of food addiction studies outlined by David Kessler and the center of some seemly fruitful research at Yale. The idea that it can ruin you metabolism, undermine your body’s homeostatic ability to maintain a healthy weight, cause food addiction, possibly cause cancer,etc is a far more potent indictment than the idea that it adds some unnecessary calories to our diet.

    I strongly believe that “empty calories” is an ineffective public health message. I think the Corn Refiner’s campaign is proof.

    The idea that sugar represents empty calories is widespread and well understood by the general public. It also seems impotent when it comes to convincing people to avoid sugar. It is easily co-opted by admonishments for moderation and more excerice. The Corn Refiners understand that very well. I’d like to see it sink in a little better with the nutrition community.

  • No, Marion, the message shouldn’t be “eat less sugar” but “eat less”.

  • Whatever the true state of differences between HFCS and Sucrose, the lawsuit is not frivolous. What’s at issue here is the individual’s right to choose what to put into his/her body and what not to put into his/her body.

    It doesn’t matter if avoiding HFCS in favor of Sucrose results in physical benefits or not. Each of us has a right to choose whether or not to eat it WITHOUT being decieved into accidentally consuming it under a different guise.

    They want to change the name because a lot of consumers don’t want to eat HFCS. Those consumers (citizens) have that right and if we don’t affirm it then the whole battle is lost.

    The corn refiners are faced with people who have looked at the debate and decided not to eat a particular product. Whether one thinks their ideas are silly or not is not relevant. We can’t allow the private enterprise to fool people into eating something they wish to avoid.

    If large corporations can just change the basic names of products at will, there is no hope for consumer education and no hope for consumer choice. If one group convinces people to avoid something because it’s bad for them, the producer of that product can just change the name.

    “Sugar” could be changed to “Metabolic Fuel.” Caffeine could become “Alertness Enhancer.”

    Whether we think the choices consumers make are frivolous or no, we must protect the consumer’s right to make that choice without being fooled.

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  • Daniel

    Considering that HFCS is in everything I don’t see why they are so worried, they have the cheaper product and that’s a very powerful argument. The American consumer, in his majority, is not so food conscious and will eat salt, fat and sugar/HFCS at will. I think there is a very little segment of the population that makes the distinction and even a smaller one that cares.
    As a side thought, there was at some point a debate about those enzymes used for extracting HFCS and some mercury that was used during the process.

  • That should read eat no sugar.

  • Deman

    A disturbingly high rate of weight gain and health problems developed in rats fed small ammounts of HFCS versus sugar in this study at Princton university.

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