If you have gotten into the habit of scanning the list of ingredients of the processed food you buy at your local supermarket, get ready to look for something new. Or more to the point—not. “Corn sugar” may soon be showing up in the fine print along the side or the bottom of your favorite soft drink, “healthy” fruit-like snack, cereal box or thousands of other food products.
What’s actually new about “corn sugar”? Nothing but the name. You might know it better by its previous moniker: high-fructose corn syrup. Since the late 1970s high-fructose corn syrup has been replacing sugar as the sweetener of choice for profit-minded food conglomerates. Its cost is kept artificially low by the nation’s off-kilter crop subsidy programs, and high-fructose corn syrup has essentially driven actual sugar (a crop with subsidy issues of its own) out of the market.
In recent years, however H.F.C.S. has begun to get a bad name, hence the desire of corn “refiners” to change it. Some nutritionists and scientists believe it has played an important and detrimental role in the nation’s diabetes and obesity epidemics, and many consumers, alarmed by this association have begun to seek out products that are sweetened with actual sugar. So far, so good: well-informed consumers making rational market choices about the products they buy.
That, of course, may be the least optimal kind of consumer as far as the Corn Refiners Association (membership apparently limited to Cargill, ADM, Corn Products Int'l) is concerned. So rather than looking into the veracity of the possible link between poor health outcomes and H.F.C.S., the industry has settled for the old-fashioned strategy of muddying the waters. It has appealed to the Food and Drug Administration for a name change. First it requested, plain old “corn syrup.” More recently, however, wiser, more market-savvy heads apparently decided that rebranding did not move far away enough from the original, now odious association, so “corn sugar” has been formally requested by the Corn Refiners Association.
The industry claims it wishes to make a name change to resolve consumer confusion regarding H.F.C.S., but it is clear that consumer confusion is actually the outcome they seek. Few consumers who have bothered to study the possible health implications of a diet too rich in H.F.C.S. are confused at all; they know they don’t want it in their food. To its credit, the FDA has so far resisted the name adulteration, reasoning properly that rubber-stamping such an obvious rebranding scam would further reduce the agency’s credibility with consumers. A final determination has not been made, but the FDA should summarily dismiss this disingenuous appeal, and the agency should immediately go after food producers who, too impatient to wait for FDA approval, have already made the switch to “corn sugar” on the ingredient lists of their products.
The nation has had a hard enough time confronting the alarming health problems emerging out of the “normal” American diet. Hiding away one of the suspects most implicated in the crisis behind a new identity may continue to benefit the corn industry but will further frustrate efforts to help Americans eat better, stay healthier and live longer.