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A Sticky Situation for FDA

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, cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.

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.

“Corn Refiners Association to FDA: we will call HFCS ‘corn sugar’ whether you like it or not” was originally posted on Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog Sept. 21. Reposted with permission.

© Food Safety News
  • 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.

  • 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 chug.
    Last year, a USC lab collected samples of soda, both fountain and bottled, and had them analyzed for fructose content. (I remember you commented on this paper.) 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. (Approximately = to sucrose 50% 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 have no guarantee of the specific formula.
    Please don’t disseminate this ‘HFCS is about the same as
    table sugar’. Your esteemed work and name are valued highly by
    your readership.

  • Science v. Math

    Cynthia has an interesting fun with math comment, but is there a scientific study that indicates a 55/45 ratio is any worse for the human body than a 50/50 ratio? Or should we just not be drinking so many carbohydrate-sweetened drinks in total? Also: A link to the study in question would be helpful. I recall wondering what they actually analyzed and what the results were. “Some” were higher than one is not a convincing argument, for example. Just one data point? Does that mean “some” were lower? Was the average of many higher or lower than one? And where was one as a reprentation of all sucrose-sweetened beverages? Did products sitting out in the hot sun show a different level? So many questions, so few answers. And while some people are obsessing about which excessive amount of sweetener is worse, they just don’t seem to have the same amount of concern for pathogens.

  • Cynthia1770

    for science vs. math
    Obesity. October 14, 2010.
    “Sugar Content of Popular Sweetened Beverages Based on Objective Laboratory Analysis: Focus on Fructose Content.”
    The abstract is available at http://www.obesityjournal.org
    You’ll need to pay to get the whole article, which I did.
    They analyzed 23 sugar-sweetened beverages, one bottle of Mexican Coke, and four standard solutions. The analysis was done by independent laboratories.
    a 14 fl.oz bottle of HFCS-55 Sprite was found to have:
    6.6 g/100ml fructose + 3.7 g/100ml glucose = total sugar 10.3g
    fructose:glucose ratio = 64/36.
    (of 11 drinks sweetened only with HFCS, 3 samples( one
    Coke, one Pepsi, one Sprite) had 64-65% fructose, 4 had
    59% fructose, and 4 had 57-58% fructose. The 57-58% is
    just 5% different from HFCS-55, so I’ll give that a pass.
    a 12 fl oz Mexican coke had:
    5.4 g/100 ml fructose + 5.0g glucose = 10.4g/100ml
    The fructose:glucose ratio = 52/48 (in theory 50:50)
    As to your comment that “sitting in the hot sun” would change the fructose:glucose ratio. It might change the total sugar concentration if there was evaporation, or in the case of a fountain drink, the sugar concentration might be more or less depending on who mixed the syrup with the carbonated water, but the fructose:glucose ratio will not change.