Dan Charles and April Fulton
Corn-based-sweetener manufacturers may be singing a sour tune today. The Food and Drug Administration just ruled that the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup that sweetens many of our candies, sodas and snacks cannot be called "corn sugar." But much like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator character, they'll probably be baaack.
Way back in September 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to allow it to call HFCS corn sugar instead, arguing that consumers have a bad impression of HFCS because of its complicated name.
The FDA, which decides what food labels can say, ruled that consumers would be too confused by the name change.
High fructose corn syrup is cheaper than regular sugar, and it became a popular choice for food companies decades ago. But during the past few years, its reputation has taken a beating.
In 2004, a widely read report suggested high fructose corn syrup was a major cause of the obesity epidemic, and documentaries such as Fast Food Nation and King Corn piled on.
Although the American Medical Association says there isn't enough evidence to restrict HFCS — and the professors who published that paper in 2004 have recanted — public perception of high fructose corn syrup is poor.
A more recent study raised more obesity questions, although there were a lot of questions raised about its methodology.
How did the corn syrup makers fight back? Start a PR campaign with a cute kid and a wholesome dad walking in a cornfield.
In the past few years, several high-profile food companies have switched back to sugar because of the bad HFCS rap, and the sugar industry is doing all it can to encourage that, filing lawsuits and developing its own countercampaign.
In the petition to the FDA, the companies argued that HFCS is pretty much the same as sugar. And chemically, they're right. Both sweeteners are a mix of glucose and fructose, and our bodies handle them in similar ways.
But the FDA defines sugar as a "solid, dried, and crystallized" and syrup as "an aqueous solution or liquid food." FDA's approach is "consistent with the common understanding of sugar and syrup as referenced in a dictionary," the ruling says. In English, that means consumers might get more confused than they already are about sweeteners.
Also, there's already something else on the market called corn sugar. It's the name for the sweetener dextrose, and has been used by people who have trouble tolerating regular sugar for 30 years, the FDA says.
The corn refiners did not offer an immediate response, but stay tuned for more on this story.