'Corn Sugar' Makers Hope You'll Buy The New Name

An image from a TV ad by the The Corn Refiners Association.

hide captionA television advertisement from the Corn Refiners Association.

The Corn Refiners Association

Would "high fructose corn syrup" sound so sweet by any other name? The Corn Refiners Association sure hopes so. Last week, the industry group applied to the federal government for permission to use a new name for the ingredient on food labels: "corn sugar."

Whether it's called high fructose corn syrup or corn sugar, the ingredient makes up a significant part of Americans' diets. According to the Agriculture Department, the average American ate 35.7 pounds of high fructose corn syrup last year. That's not such a surprise considering it's used as a sweetener in everything from fruit-flavored drinks and energy bars to jams, yogurts and breads.

Consumers Cut Back, Companies Follow

High fructose corn syrup became a popular choice for companies decades ago because it's less expensive than traditional sugar and comes in a handy liquid form that makes it easy to use. But during the last few years, its reputation has taken a beating.

It started in 2004, when a widely read report suggested high fructose corn syrup was a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Documentaries such as Fast Food Nation and King Corn also raised concerns about the ingredient and blamed it for contributing to diabetes and obesity. Although the American Medical Association says there isn't enough evidence yet to restrict the use of high fructose corn syrup — and the professors who published that paper in 2004 have recanted — public perception of high fructose corn syrup is plummeting.

Scared of losing customers, major companies are pulling the ingredient from their products. Sara Lee switched to sugar in two of its breads last month. Snapple, Gatorade and Hunt's Ketchup all made the move in the past two years.

The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

But Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, tells NPR's Mike Pesca that the public has it all wrong.

"The challenge is they think [high fructose corn syrup] is high in fructose, when it's actually not," Erickson says. "The name has been misleading to consumers and it is confusing, which is why we petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow it to be called corn sugar."

It's true that high fructose corn syrup is not particularly high in fructose. In fact, it contains just as much fructose as sugar does. But that doesn't mean the public won't be skeptical about the name change and rebranding efforts.

Part of the Corn Refiners Association attempt to rebrand corn syrup is a series of TV ads that try and clarify confusion about the ingredient. They show people eating brightly-colored lollipops and drinking juice, explaining, "whether it's corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can't tell the difference. Sugar is sugar."

Even More Of The Truth

But sugar, whether it is corn sugar or any other type is the problem, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"The bottom line is that people ought to be eating less sugar, whether it's high fructose corn sugar or sugar," he says.

Jacobson thinks it does make sense for the Corn Refiners Association to choose a new name that more accurately reflects their product, but he does not think their new choice is quite right.

"The term 'corn sugar,'" he says, "may also be misleading, suggesting that the product is kind of squeezed right out of corn rather than being produced through an industrial process."

Until the Food and Drug Administration makes a decision on the name change — which could take years — labels will still read "high fructose corn syrup."

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