Even though several U.S. senators have come out in support of a name change for high fructose corn syrup, claiming that HFCS may be no different—at least biochemically—from other refined sugars, natural products retailers say they still won't make room on their shelves for newly labeled "corn sugar" goods.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering a petition by the Corn Refiners Association to amend food labeling rules so that "corn sugar" could be used as a name for HFCS. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), along with senators Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, arguing that HFCS is being "significantly mischaracterized in the marketplace largely because of its name."
Almost half of grocery shoppers now avoid products containing HFCS, according to Natural Marketing Institute's annual survey of more than 6,000 American adults. Food and beverage manufacturers have tuned into this trend and, thus, are distancing themselves from the corn-based sweetener. In 2010, one in 50 new products launched in the U.S. featured the claim no high fructose corn syrup, according to global market research firm Datamonitor.
In April 2011, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) submitted a similar letter to Grassley's to the FDA. He wrote that "'corn sugar' is a less confusing and more apt name because high fructose corn syrup is essentially equivalent to sugar in its sweetness, composition, calorie content, characterizing properties and use as a food ingredient."
Although several well-known nutrition experts, such as Marion Nestle, agree, at least in part, with Harkin's case, they still publicly oppose the CRA petition. Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, challenged the HFCS name change in a letter to the FDA. "I understand that the Corn Refiners Association uses my comments on its website to support its position," Nestle wrote. "The website quotes comments I have made to the effect that HFCS is biochemically equivalent to sucrose. It is. But I do not believe that biochemical equivalence is a good reason for the FDA to agree to a name change at this point."
Her rationale: A name change is "not in the public interest." According to Nestle, it only furthers the commercial interests of manufacturers using HFCS, which shouldn't concern the FDA.
And besides, "corn sugar" could confuse consumers, according to Kimberly Lord Stewart, health and wellness editor and analyst, and author of Eating Between the Lines (St. Martins Press, 2007). "Personally, I think 'corn sugar' is very misleading," Lord Stewart said. "I have always felt that sugar is from sugar cane, beet sugar is from sugar beets and corn syrup is from corn, and each should be respectively labeled as such. Consumers have a right to know what is in their food, right down to the processing."
Is HFCS different from sugar?
The truth is that HFCS may be slightly different from table sugar (sucrose). Compared to sucrose, HFCS typically has a bit more fructose (55 percent) in its fructose-glucose ratio, though the type of HFCS used in foods often contains less fructose (42 percent). The type used in soft drinks, however, can sometimes contain much more, according to a recent study in the journal Obesity [PDF].
Do these percentages really matter? Because both HFCS and sucrose end up as glucose and fructose in our bodies, are the physiological effects about the same? Many experts think so.
To explain this result, New York Times Magazine reporter Gary Taubes defers to Luc Tappy, considered a world authority on fructose. Tappy said that there's "not the single hint" that HFCS is worse than other sugars.
Yet research within this realm goes on. Lord Stewart points to early studies showing that HFCS intake contributes to increased abdominal fat in rats and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in humans. "My hunch is that this situation is very similar to trans fats," Lord Stewart said. "Science may eventually prove that HFCS does indeed pose problems. When and if the federal government will agree may take many years, even decades."
Who will stock, who will buy 'corn sugar' products?
If the FDA approves a name change for HFCS, some consumers may be tempted to buy "corn sugar" products—that is, if they can find them. Grocers who already have banned HFCS products from their shelves say they won't start stocking "corn sugar" goods.
At Rockville, Md.-based Mom’s Organic Market, the decision comes down to quality. "We think there are much higher quality and less processed sweetener options that manufacturers can use," said Lisa de Lima, vice president of grocery for Mom's.
De Lima notes, however, that mass-market consumers—as opposed to Mom's shoppers—will be more susceptible to a new marketing term. Thus, they will buy foods and drinks containing "corn sugar" even if they avoided the very same products when the ingredient was called HFCS.
Steve French, managing partner at the Harleysville, Pa.-based Natural Marketing Institute, predicts the same. He explains that "natural-channel consumers show higher avoidance behavior" when it comes to products containing HFCS.
More reasons to banish HFCS
Even if researchers ultimately conclude that HFCS is no worse than other sugars, natural products retailers cite other reasons to ban HFCS from their shelves.
"Do consumers want sugar?" asked Mo George-Payette, chief operating officer of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Mother's Market & Kitchen. "Then let it be organically derived. If it contains any form of corn, no matter what you name it, the result is a gentically modified organism with a much deeper background story than a simple play of wits as to its molecular content once broken down."
Gina Cawley, head of eco-initiatives and education for Olney, Md.-based Roots Market, agrees, noting that Roots does not stock products with HFCS for many reasons, including human health, the environment and the economy. "We don't believe [HFCS] is healthy considering the extent to which this item is found in virtually all mainstream grocery items," Cawley said. "Whenever possible, we choose to not support genetic engineering—and most HFCS comes from GE corn. Finally, we like to support small, organic, independent farmers, and we find that the current farm subsidy program tends to support large agribusiness. Much of this support goes to corn, and much of this corn goes to HFCS."
A name change will not soften any of these retailers' stances on HFCS products. Thus, natural products shoppers won't see "corn sugar" foods and beverages appear in the aisles of the stores they frequent.
And that's probably OK with them. "Conscientious food shoppers, those who are keenly aware of issues regarding antibiotics, pesticides and macronutrients like fiber, protein and carbohydrates, are more likely to seek out sugar over high fructose corn syrup," Lord Stewart said. "I think they will not buy into the 'corn sugar' name change. These are the very same consumers who sought out foods that were free of trans fats when mainstream science told them it was safe to eat hydrogenated fats."