Would high-fructose corn syrup, by any other name, have sweeter appeal?
The Corn Refiners Association, which represents firms that make the syrup, has been trying to improve the image of the much maligned sweetener with ad campaigns promoting it as a natural ingredient made from corn. Now, the group has petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration to start calling the ingredient “corn sugar,” arguing that a name change is the only way to clear up consumer confusion about the product.
“Clearly the name is confusing consumers,” said Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based group, in an interview. “Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.”
According to the market research firm NPD Group, about58 percent of Americans say they are concerned that high-fructose corn syrup poses a health risk.
Some scientists over the years have speculated that high-fructose corn syrup may contribute to obesity by somehow disrupting normal metabolic function, but the research has been inconclusive. As a result, most leading scientists and nutrition experts agree that in terms of health, the effect of high-fructose corn syrup is the same as regular sugar, and that too much of either ingredient is bad for your health.
Marion Nestle, a professor in New York University’s department of nutrition and a longtime food industry critic, says that Americans consume too much of all types of sugar, but that there is no meaningful biochemical difference between table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
“I’m not eager to help the corn refiners sell more of their stuff,” Dr. Nestle wrote in an e-mail. “But you have to feel sorry for them. High-fructose corn syrup is the new trans fat. Everyone thinks it’s poison, and food companies are getting rid of it as fast as they can.”
Dr. Nestle says she thinks the plural “corn sugars” is a better description of high-fructose corn syrup, which is actually a mixture of glucose and fructose. But she agrees that the corn refiners “have lots of reasons to want the change.”
“Even I have to admit that it’s not an unreasonable one,” Dr. Nestle said.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he thought the term “high-fructose corn syrup” had misled many into thinking the sweetener was composed mainly of fructose, a simple sugar found in honey and fruit.
“Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same,’’ said Dr. Jacobson, who has a doctorate in microbiology. “I don’t know if ‘corn sugar’ is the best term, but it’s better than ‘high-fructose corn syrup.’ ”
High-fructose corn syrup, which came into widespread use in the 1970s, isn’t particularly high in fructose, but was so named to distinguish it from ordinary, glucose-containing corn syrup, according to a report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (also known as table sugar) contain about the same amount of glucose and fructose. In fact, one commonly used version of the ingredient known as HFCS-42 actually contains less fructose (42 percent) than table sugar, which has 50 percent fructose, according to the report.
“The name is confusing, and consumers don’t understand that it has the same calories as sugar,” said Ms. Erickson, of the Corn Refiners Association. “They also think it’s sweeter tasting. That’s why the alternate name provides clarity for consumers when it comes to the ingredient composition and helps them better understand what’s in their foods.”
Table sugar comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beets. High-fructose corn syrup is made essentially by soaking corn kernels to extract corn starch, and using enzymes to turn the glucose in the starch into fructose. The ingredient is a favorite of food makers for practical reasons. Compared with sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t mask flavors, has a lower freezing point and retains moisture better, which is useful in making foods like chewy granola bars. And because the corn crop in the United States is heavily subsidized, high-fructose corn syrup is also cheap. As a result, it’s now used in so many foods, from crackers to soft drinks, that it has become one of the biggest sources of calories in the American diet.
But the public perception of high-fructose corn syrup as unhealthful has prompted many food companies to stop using it in their products, including Hunt’s Ketchup, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice and Wheat Thins crackers.
The F.D.A. has six months to respond to the name-change petition. If the agency accepts it, the decision on whether to allow the name “corn sugar” on food labels may take another 12 to 18 months.
Although food label changes aren’t common, the F.D.A. has allowed name changes in the past. The ingredient first called “low erucic acid rapeseed oil” was changed to “canola oil” in the 1980s. More recently, the F.D.A. allowed prunes to be called “dried plums.”
“It’s rare that food ingredient labels are changed, and when they are it’s always been to provide clarity to consumers,” Ms. Erickson said. “This is a classic case for consumers to better understand an ingredient.”