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Corn Syrup by Any Other Name…

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2012
English: Fischer projection of D-fructose

D-fructose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While high fructose corn syrup (which is typical a blend of fructose and glucose) is a ubiquitous food ingredient, it now has something of  a poor reputation. For example, the front label on the ketchup bottle in my fridge has “no high fructose corn syrup!” in large letters. This is, presumably, considered a positive selling point. Given that many consumers are less than enamored with high fructose corn syrup, it is hardly surprising that the Corn Refiners Association tried to get the United States FDA to accept their proposal to rename the syrup “corn sugar.” While there are health concerns regarding sugar, sugar is generally looked upon more favorably than high fructose corn syrup. The FDA denied this request on the grounds that it does not meet the definition of “sugar” and thus, using an argument by definition, it follows that high fructose corn syrup is not sugar. According to the FDA, sugar must be “a solid, dried and crystallized food.” High fructose corn syrup, being syrup, obviously does not meet this definition-thus it is not a sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association has also been engaged in a marketing campaign to convince the public that high fructose corn syrup is a form of sugar and is comparable to table sugar. Not surprisingly, the Sugar Association brought a lawsuit against the Corn Refiners Association in response to this campaign.  This sort of battle of names in the food industry is nothing new or particularly unusual. For example, there has also been a battle between the producers of milk and the makers of soy milk over whether or not soy milk should be legally allowed to be called “soy milk.”

It might, of course, be wondered why the naming matters. In the case of high fructose corn syrup, the most likely reason was noted above: while  high fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad reputation (deserved or not), sugar still has a better reputation (deserved or not). As such, replacing “high fructose corn syrup” with “corn sugar” on ingredient labels would tend to lead uninformed consumers to believe that they were not consuming high fructose corn syrup but something else. Given that the reputation of high fructose corn syrup seems to be suffering, such re-naming would probably result in more sales relative to attempting to sell products with the original name.

Because of government subsidies for corn, high fructose corn syrup is cheaper than table sugar and thus is widely used because it provides more sweetness for the dollar. As such, high fructose corn syrup is a competitor to sugar that enjoys a price advantage. As might be suspected, it seems reasonable that the Sugar Association would not want to allow a major competitor to change the name of their signature product and thus yield an important advantage in regards to reputation.

For those who recall basic chemistry, this dispute might seem a bit odd. After all, fructose is chemically classified as a sugar (as is, obviously, glucose). As such, it is tempting to agree with the Corn Refiners Association: high fructose corn syrup is sugar. However, the FDA does not define  “sugar” chemically, but also in terms of its state (it must be a solid-at least in its “normal” state). As such, syrup is not a sugar-even if it is chemically a sugar (or two sugars mixed together). This, of course, might suggest that the dispute is thus the result of some sort of arcane legal process in which the definition of what seem to be a chemical term is set by bureaucrats and lobbyists rather than by chemists. Given that chemists are presumably the legitimate experts on what counts as a sugar, it would seem more rational to rely on the scientific rather than seemingly political definition of “sugar.”

One obvious reply is that the FDA might have  a legitimate reason for classifying sugar in a way that involves it being a specific sort of solid rather than based on its chemical composition. After all, looking at the matter from the standpoint of food classifications, there does seem to be a reasonable distinction between a syrup and sugar. To use an appeal to intuition, imagine that you ask for some sugar for your coffee and you are handed a bottle of syrup. If the person said “this is fructose syrup, which is a sugar”, then you would probably reply that you mean the white crystal stuff. As such, looked at from the standpoint of how consumers understand “sugar” and “syrup”, high fructose corn syrup would be syrup and not corn sugar. This leads to the second point.

A second obvious reply is that renaming high fructose corn syrup would seem to primarily serve to mislead consumers. As noted above, until consumers sorted out that “corn sugar” actually refers to high fructose corn syrup, they are likely to buy products thinking that they are avoiding an ingredient they do not want. While I will not make any claims about the true intentions of the Corn Refiners Association, misleading the public in this way is morally dubious at best.

My second reply could be countered by arguing that the name change is not intended to mislead consumers but to offset an unfounded bad reputation that high fructose corn syrup does not deserve. After all, consumers often seem to regard high fructose corn syrup as bad-at least as being worse than sugar. If this is not the case, then the syrup is being judged unfairly. If this is the case, then it could be contended that the name change would merely allow the maligned ingredient to shed its unearned bad reputation. This could be seen as a person who has been falsely accused of misdeeds electing to change his name for a fresh start because he has been unable to erase the stain on his original name. This does have a certain moral appeal to it, but I am inclined to think that it is offset by the fact that most consumers would be ignorant of the name change and hence would be misled by such labels. As such, I do agree with the FDA’s decision to not allow the name change.

In terms of the science, the American Medical Association takes the view that there is not adequate evidence to start restricting the use of the syrup. More research is, however, is planned. The Center for Science in the Public Interest currently takes the view that the syrup is no worse than table sugar-but that Americans consume too much of both sweeteners.

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