The ‘corn sugar’ scam is ended, but the confusion lingers on

Posted by
July 10, 2012

So how did this CRA commercial end up as a "news" video at ABCnews.com?

Although the Food & Drug Administration gave a thumbs down at the end of May to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) 2010 petition to have high fructose corn syrup officially called by the better-sounding name “corn sugar,” recent postings from web sites, including The Consumerist and mercola.com, are still reporting numerous sightings of the “corn sugar or cane sugar your body can’t tell the difference” ads.

In fact, The Consumerist, a consumer advocacy site sponsored by Consumer Reports, after noting last month that the “CRA continues to flood the basic cable airwaves with ads touting the name (corn sugar)” has even put the question to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s official “consumer protection agency,” charged with the job of making sure “companies…don’t mislead or trick people” with “deceptive” advertising.

The response The Consumerist got was similar to the answer I received  from the FTC: that no comment will be made unless the agency has “concluded an investigation,” and is “filing a complaint.”  While investigations into deceptive advertising can originate with complaints from consumers, competitors or the agency’s own monitoring of advertising, an FTC spokesperson told me, no complaint to date had been filed against the CRA.

But curiously enough, The Consumerist received a statement form CRA president Audrae Erickson, which said in part: “Our mission is to help consumers understand the simple, indisputable fact that high fructose corn syrup is just another form of sugar. Knowing this information will help them make better decisions about calorie control and consumption.”

Ms. Erickson apparently didn’t bother reading down to the part of the letter she received  from the FDA listing one of the key reasons “corn sugar” won’t fly: the fact that sugar is defined as a “solid, dried, and crystallized food, whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food.”

So although the corn refiners may have been foiled in their formal attempt to turn HFCS into “corn sugar,” they’re apparently not about to abandon the effort to convince consumers that’s what it is. The CRA’s  “Sweet Surprise” website, for example, still makes the claim that “HFCS is simply a form of sugar made from corn.”

It’s possible, of course, that the FTC will now step in and put an end to this stealth campaign by forbidding further “corn sugar” mentions from hitting the airwaves and Internet. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those “sugar is sugar” ads might not still be readily available to web users – from a major news site.

Media continue to confuse the issue

At the ABCnews.com video page one of the CRA’s “corn sugar” commercials was posted in March bearing an ABC news logo and stamped “courtesy: Corn Refiners Association” with the caption “Ad supports high fructose corn syrup” and the subhead “Corn Refiners Association’s commercial proclaims ‘sugar is sugar’.”

Curious as to why the CRA ad would be running as “news” on the ABC site without an accompanying story, I made several calls to the network in New York,  and finally managed to reach someone who provided some answers.

It seems the commercial was originally posted along with a story about the lawsuit filed by sugar growers and refiners against the CRA and member companies for false advertising (of which the commercial in question could be exhibit A). Videos are posted twice, the ABC spokesperson told me, as it “increases the editorial value of the story,” and this stand-alone posting should be in no way considered an endorsement of high fructose corn syrup by ABC News, but simply reflects the way video content is handled by the site.

Regardless of how it got there, it seems the “corn sugar” commercials will not be going away anytime soon.

Despite the clear distinction the FDA provided between HFCS and cane or beet sugar, the term “sugary drinks” continues to be used by major media outlets as well as Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg and staff in talking about New York’s proposed ban on super-size, mostly HFCS-sweetened beverages. One of the most tangled and confusing references can be found this week at the Foodconsumer site in an article that states, “sugar that is commonly used in sugar-sweetened beverages is high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, which is now called by the industry corn sugar.”

Not all reporters and writers have missed the point. An opinion piece published in U.S. Catholic actually got it right in noting that “Bloomberg’s proposal would limit all “sugar water” products—a misnomer since virtually all such products are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—to just 16 ounces.”

Perhaps what the FTC really ought to do is require the corn refiners  to run remedial advertising – for example, having a representative walk through the question mark in the corn field apologizing for the confusion their advertising has sown and explaining the differences between real sugar and the laboratory concoction that’s still officially known as high fructose corn syrup.