Once upon a time sugar was sugar, and sugar was most definitely not good for you. So the Corn Refiners Association move to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar is a daring move – but should do little to sweeten its reputation.
Earlier this month, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow food and beverage manufacturers to label high fructose corn syrup ‘corn sugar’. The CRA says the move is about clarity for consumers, but who are they kidding? There's clearly more to it than that.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has suffered from a serious image problem for years, having been variously accused of causing obesity and type-2 diabetes, not to mention being an evil, secret weapon of mass destruction. The evidence behind such claims is, at best, inconclusive (and at worst paranoid fear-mongering) but at this stage it hardly matters. The sweetener has fallen out of favor with consumers and sales have slumped.
Whatever the premise, the Corn Refiners are right about the effect that a name change could have – it would make the nature of HFCS absolutely clear. Yes, it is a sugar and no, it is not significantly higher in fructose than other sugars.
But I wonder about the sense of this for the corn refining industry. Don’t they know that dietary guidelines have consistently urged us to avoid added sugars? And now that consumers recognize the term, the industry risks being accused of trying to hide HFCS under another name.
Perhaps they’re hoping that no one is paying attention: Recent research suggests that Americans have dismally poor adherence to dietary guidelines anyway.
Nevertheless, surely we can get the hang of the simple idea that too much sugar is bad for us, instead of believing that switching from one sugar to another will miraculously lead to good health – whether it comes from cane, beets, corn, or even agave.
Meanwhile food and beverage manufacturers have latched on to widespread consumer confusion, feeding our collective sweet tooth with sucrose rather than HFCS and marketing it as different – and better.
Too much sugar
In a way, HFCS has been a victim of its own success. It is a versatile ingredient and has many useful functions. It can extend the shelf life of bread, for instance, and because it is a syrup it often works better than sucrose in liquid formulations. But we simply eat too many added sugars in general – and HFCS, no matter what you call it, is in so many American foods.
It is expected to take the FDA up to two years to decide whether to allow manufacturers to list HFCS as corn sugar on ingredient labels.
If the agency says yes, it may help consumer awareness of the ubiquity of sugars in the American diet.
But I predict it would do little to sugar-coat the reputation of HFCS.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.