To corn refiners, ‘word identity theft’ comes naturally

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January 3, 2012

Railroad tank car with HFCS

Last October I reported on a letter released by the Associated Press from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which basically ordered the trade group to stop using “corn sugar” as a synonym for high fructose corn syrup and to “re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term.”

But in a new year’s check of several CRA-run websites (including one called cornsugar.com), it appears that all the “corn sugar” messages still remain, along with my all-time favorite statement by the association that “corn sugar…is an FDA approved alternate label name for dextrose, a corn-based sweetener that contains no fructose.” But when the CRA  “…use(s) the phrase ‘corn sugar,’ we are using it to describe high fructose corn syrup as a form of sugar made from corn.”  What this ‘clear as mud’ statement means is that when anyone else (including the FDA) uses the term “corn sugar” they are referring to dextrose (also called glucose), a product that contains NO fructose. But when the CRA says “corn sugar,” it’s talking about HFCS, a different product entirely that does indeed contain fructose.

Then, while I was at the CRA’s Sweet Surprise site just this morning, a really big box popped up with four questions to answer. The first one said “HFCS is natural,” allowing the reader to choose either  a big “T” for true or a big “F” for false. I selected “false,” and was told my answer was wrong. “True!” the message said, “HFCS is made from corn. It contains nothing artificial or synthetic.”

Not so fast, Corn Refiners. As I discussed in a November blog, there is no “official” FDA definition of the term “natural”. What the group is hanging their “natural” hat on appears to go back to a July 2008 letter from an FDA food labeling team supervisor after a meeting between the FDA, CRA and manufacturers of HFCS. The process described at that FDA meeting on how HFCS is made, in which a synthetic fixing agent chemical called glutaraldehyde is said to be all washed away before the additional “enzymatic reaction(s)” occur, was enough for that FDA staffer to comment that “we would not object to the use of the term natural” on products containing HFCS.

Having been given such casual consent to use that particular ‘N’ word  the corn folks didn’t waste any time in hyping it to the heavens. Issuing a press release a few days later, CRA president Audrae Erickson said, “Upon careful review of the current manufacturing process for high fructose corn syrup, the FDA found that HFCS can be labeled natural.” Erickson was also quoted as saying “This is very good news!”

Fast forward to 2010 and the case of Lauren Coyle versus Arizona brand beverages ,which challenged the use of  the word “natural” on labels of Arizona drink products containing HFCS. The court, in asking for an official opinion from the FDA on whether HFCS is considered a natural ingredient, was told by the agency it would “respectfully decline” to make such a determination.

It seems the FDA letter that the CRA is quoting – and which can still be found on the group’s websites, by the way – is considered an “informal communication” and not any type of “definitive statement” as to the FDA’s opinion of the naturalness of HFCS. “The opinions of individual employees do not bind the agency, and FDA has made clear that only the Commissioner can speak definitively for the agency,” the letter to the court stated.

Interestingly, two years before the CRA ran with the term “natural,” it went on record opposing a petition filed by the Sugar Association asking the FDA to define the term, saying “CRA opposes the Petition’s request to define the term ‘natural’ for FDA-regulated food.”

But I suppose the Corn Refiners were just doing what comes naturally to folks who seem to have a natural tendency to play fast and loose with definitions.

More comments posted protesting “corn sugar” petition

A docket check at the FDA site for the Corn Refiners Association petition of last year to give HFCS the sweet name “corn sugar”  has been updated with almost 100 more consumer comments since last week, currently showing 879 public submissions! Now this is a case of Food Identity Theft you can help prevent by adding your voice to the public protest. Click here to tell the FDA what you think of this marketing ploy.