The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has denied a petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) urging it recognize 'corn sugar' as an alternate name for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
In a petition filed in 2010, the CRA argued that the term ‘corn sugar’ would provide greater clarity for consumers, many of whom were laboring under the misapprehension that HFCS is significantly higher in calories, fructose, and sweetness than table sugar (sucrose).
It also asked the regulator to prohibit the use of 'corn sugar' as an alternate name for dextrose.
However, the petition was strongly opposed by sugar refiners and farmers who filed a lawsuit against leading corn refiners last year accusing them of deceiving the public. They also argued that the CRA should have waited until the FDA responded to its petition before launching a high profile media campaign using the 'corn sugar' name to describe HFCS.
Sugar is a solid, syrup is a liquid…
In a letter to CRA president Audrae Erickson, Michael Landa, Director at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said he had not been persuaded by the CRA's petition for three key reasons.
First, according to FDA nomenclature, “sugar is a solid, dried, and crystallized food [eg. sucrose, dextrose monohydrate, lactose etc]; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food”.
Therefore, said Landa, “the use of the term ‘sugar’ to describe HFCS, a product that is a syrup, would not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties”.
He added: ”FDA’s approach is [also] consistent with the common understanding of sugar and syrup as referenced in a dictionary.”
Consumers associate dextrose with corn sugar
Second, he said, the FDA is “not persuaded by the [CRA’s] arguments … that consumers do not associate ‘corn sugar’ with dextrose”.
He added: “The term ‘corn sugar” has been used to describe dextrose for over 30 years… In addition, a search of the scientific literature and various public websites demonstrates that ‘corn sugar’ is often the term that is used to describe dextrose.”
People with fructose intolerance could be confused
Third, ‘corn sugar’ has “been known to be an allowed ingredient for individuals with hereditary fructose intolerance or fructose malabsorption, who have been advised to avoid ingredients that contain fructose”, he claimed.
“Because such individuals have associated ‘corn sugar’ [ie. dextrose] to be an acceptable ingredient to their health when ‘high fructose corn syrup’ is not, changing the name for HFCS to ‘corn sugar’ could put these individuals at risk and pose a public health concern.”
Ultimately, he said, the CRA’s petition “does not provide sufficient grounds for the agency to authorize ‘corn sugar’ as an alternate common or usual name for HFCS”.
CRA: FDA rejected our petition on 'narrow, technical grounds'
However, the CRA said its petition had been denied "on narrow, technical grounds".
President Audrae Erickson added: "They did not address or question the overwhelming scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is a form of sugar and is nutritionally the same as other sugars.
"The fact remains, which FDA did not challenge, that the vast majority of American consumers are confused about HFCS.
"Consumers have the right to know what is in their foods and beverages in simple, clear language that enables them to make well-informed dietary decisions."
She added: "It is important to note that the agency continues to consider HFCS as a form of added sugar, and requires that it be identified to consumers in the category of sugars on the Nutrition Fact Panel on foods and beverages."
Sugar Association: 'A victory for American consumers'
The Sugar Association, meanwhile, said the FDA's denial of the petition was a "victory for American consumers".
Dan Callister, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation, added: “The next step is for the federal court to end the CRA’s misleading propaganda campaign.”
Professor: HFCS might be misunderstood, but that doesn't mean FDA should change its name...
Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said the CRA had "biochemistry on its side" in that HFCS is "biochemically equivalent to sucrose".
She also agreed that HFCS was "widely misunderstood".
However, this did not mean that a name change was in the public interest, she said.
"This is just a fight between two trade associations about market share."
Writing in her Foodpolitics blog this morning, she says: "Sugars, plural, are sugars. Sucrose is glucose and fructose. So is HFCS. Everyone would be better off eating a lot less of both."
How will this impact legal dispute between the CRA and the sugar industry?
What is not clear at this stage is whether the FDA's rejection of the petition will have any bearing on the legal dispute between the sugar refiners and the CRA over its corn sugar media campaign.
In a briefing document published on its website earlier this week, the CRA noted that the "FDA petition is an entirely separate process".
Click here to read Landa's letter.