Despite FDA edict, distinction between HFCS and sugar remains as blurred as ever

Posted by
June 7, 2012

A week that began in a haze of sticky confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup and sugar in the follow-up to New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s declaration of war against super-sized “sugary drinks” has now ended, appropriately enough, with a “Sugary Drinks Summit” conducted in Washington, D.C. on June 6 and 7.

Spearheaded by The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the summit is touted to “strategize” ways to “improve health by reversing the dramatic increase in sugary-drink consumption over the past decades.”

What is a “sugary drink” you may ask? According to CSPI, which says it’s a question that “confuses” lots of folks, a “sugary drink” is one made with “naturally derived” sugar or one that is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

CSPI also states on its website that calories consumed from these “sugary drinks” have “doubled” between the years of 1977 and 2002. I don’t know what specific statistics the bunch at CSPI are consulting, but what I do know is that the USDA numbers for calories consumed with “real” sugar – made from sugar cane or sugar beets – dropped by about a third during that time frame.

What did increase, by a whopping amount, is high fructose corn syrup consumption. In the years that CSPI references, daily calories taken in from HFCS in all its food uses, went from a mere 32 in 1977 to 212 calories a day by 2002, according to the USDA.

Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg and staff  are another example of those who can’t make a distinction between real sugar and HFCS. For his Monday press conference, Bloomberg surrounded himself with drinks that contain no sugar and stacks of sugar cubes in front to represent their “sugary” nature.

Only time will tell if the decision of the Food and Drug Administration last week, rejecting the petition from Big Corn to redo HFCS as “corn sugar,” and its subsequent wording explaining exactly why HFCS is not sugar, will change the definition of a “sugary drink“ and the name of this week’s event to “High Fructose Corn Syrup Summit” should CSPI decide to order a ‘refill’ next year.

The “corn sugar” saga continues

Meanwhile, the campaign to relabel HFCS as “corn sugar” – at least in our collective consciousness – has moved right along in spite of the FDA’s official thumbs down on the effort.

The latest salvo was fired by former one-term Mississippi Congressman-turned-lobbyist Ronnie Shows in the form of an opinion-page piece featured in the conservative Washington Times. Entitled “Give corn sugar a fair shake,” the piece accuses “Big Sugar” of directing “aggression” toward the makers of high fructose corn syrup by engaging in “an effort to block its (sic) campaign to educate consumers that HFCS is simply another form of sugar, just like beet and cane sugar.”

“Rarely in all my years in Washington have I seen this kind of opposition to the seemingly straightforward request to change the name from something so confusing that no one understands – high fructose corn syrup – to something common-sense sounding that everyone will comprehend, corn sugar,” Shows’ commentary stated.

In a subsequent phone conversation, however, the author of the piece admitted that he might not be all that familiar with the issue and probably hadn’t read the FDA’s reasons for denying the name change request as explained in a  letter to Corn Refiners Association President Audrae Erickson. He wasn’t aware, for instance, that corn sugar was the official name for dextrose, a fructose-free ingredient, and that the proposed name change might jeopardize the health of individuals who can’t consume fructose. Nor did he know that HFCS doesn’t fit the FDA’s official definition of sugar as being a “solid, dried and crystallized food.”

“I probably don’t have the technical knowledge I need to have,” was the way Shows put it.

Shows further acknowledged that he hadn’t known about the overwhelming public opposition to the corn refiners’ request for a name change, as reflected in the thousands of comments on the petition.

He also denied that this particular piece had anything to do with his work as a lobbyist, claiming it was simply intended to help farmers in the part of Mississippi where he’s from, since (as he noted in the article) he’s “a longtime supporter of both the sugar and corn industries.” He decided to write something on the issue, he explained  after ”a buddy called me and asked me to take a look at it.”

Asked whether he had actually written the piece in question, he replied, “I wrote most of it” and that someone had looked it over. “But it might not be as factual as it needs to be.”

Perhaps that should have been added on as a disclaimer for Washington Times readers who might have been influenced by statements like, “Educating the public that HFCS is a sugar can only help to give consumers the information they need to better control their diet.”