A Philosopher's Blog

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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The Boston Sugar Party?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2011
Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...

Image via Wikipedia

Boston, famous for its beans and tea party, is once again in the news. Mayor Tom Menino has signed an executive order that forbids  the sale, promotion and advertising of sugary drinks on government property. The city has six months to comply.

The main justification for this order is that sugary drinks contribute to obesity and obesity is a major health threat in terms of impairing the health of individuals and increasing the cost of medical care. As such, the mayor is acting to protect citizens from the dual harms of obesity: ill health and greater costs.

It is, of course, important to note that the ban is not a general ban. People can still buy all the sugary drinks they desire and advertising can continue urging people to swill until they achieve and awesomely bloated state.  They simply cannot do these things on government property. As such, the impact of this order will probably be a bit limited.

While there are clearly grounds for concern that the ban was the result of an executive order rather than being put to a vote, it can be argued that this ban is justified.

First, there is the harm argument. The main function of government is to protect citizens from harm and this can reasonable taken to include things that have an impact on the physical health of the citizen. So, just as the government can ban dangerous substances from food, it can also legitimately ban sugary drinks on the grounds that they harm the health of citizens.

Of course, the ban is not complete-it just, as noted above, applies to government property. As such, the impact on health will probably be fairly minimal.

Second, there is the economic argument. Cutting government spending is supposed to be the will of the people these days and one way to reduce this spending is to reduce government spending on health care. Obese people are considerably more expensive to care for than people who are not obese. Sugary drinks are packed with empty calories and contribute to obesity. Hence, banning them would presumably help reduce obesity and hence medical costs-most relevantly those taken care of by Medicare and Medicaid.

However, the limited scope of the ban means that the impact on medical costs will probably be fairly minimal (even when the scope is limited to Boston).

Third, there is  the symbolic argument. While the ban will probably have a fairly minor impact on health and savings, it does make a statement and is attracting attention. The city is also engaged in an education program (well, some signs) that are aimed at encouraging people to make better choices about beverages. This might have some impact on peoples’ behavior and lead them to consume fewer sugary beverages.

There are, obviously enough, some reasonable arguments against the ban.

The first is that the ban, as argued above, will probably have little or no meaningful impact. As such, there seems little compelling reason to impose such a ban.

The second, and most important, is that such a ban would seem to infringe on  freedom of choice. While sugary drinks are a very poor choice in terms of health, there does not appear to be adequate  grounds for such a ban, even one limited to government property. Obviously, such drinks are not (yet) illegal to consume and imposing such a ban seems to lack an adequate foundation.

As a general rule, the legitimate ground on which the state can restrict freedom of choice is to prevent harms from being inflicted on others. What would thus have to be shown is that the harm of the drinks outweighs the harm done by placing such restrictions.While it has been claimed that the drinks can make people fat, that is true of any food. True, sugary drinks do provide a great deal of empty calories. However, they do not seem to have special properties that make them especially dangerous and hence fit for a special ban. Their consumption also does not harm others around the consumer (unlike tobacco smoke). Also, anything that has calories can, by its very nature, make people fat. Banning all food and drink that provide calories from government property would, of course, be absurd.

My view is that while people should avoid sugary drinks, this is not a choice that should be made by the state. I do agree that the state should educate people about matters of health and that healthier alternatives should be available and encouraged. But, people have a fundamental right to make poor choices, be it in what sort of beverage they drink or what candidate they vote for.

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The Taste of Memory: Cherry Breeze Pie

Posted in DIY/Recipes by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2009
Black & White canned milk

Image via Wikipedia

When I was a kid, my grandmother made a cherry breeze pie that quickly became my favorite. After learning this, she would make it for me each time I visited. As with anything, the constant repetition transformed my favorite pie into something of a torture. But, I would smile and eat it, even though my love of the pie had faded away.

After she died, that was apparently the end of the cherry breeze pie. Not surprisingly, when I thought of her, I would think of the pie. But, I seemed to have had my fill of it.

Then one day I woke up with a wicked urge for cheery breeze pie. I had no idea how to make it, so I contacted my mother and she sent me the recipe. I made the pie, cut a slice and stared at it.

Then I picked up the fork and took a piece, a bit worried at how this would turn out. After all, some memories are best left as memories.

While it was not as good as she made it, it was damn good. I finished off the piece and then had another, for her of course. For me, that pie is the taste of memory.

The recipe is quite easy:



1/4 cup sugar

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/3 cup butter or margarine — melted

or 1 pre-made graham cracker crust


1 package cream cheese — (8 ounces)

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 can cherry pie filling — (1 pound, 5 ounces)


1. Cook butter and sugar in saucepan over medium heat until mixture boils. Remove from heat and mix in graham cracker crumbs. Press mixture evenly and firmly into 9 inch pie plate to form a crust. Chill. (Or just buy a pre-made crust).

2. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually mix in sweetened condensed milk, stir in lemon juice and vanilla. Spread in crust. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or until firm.

3. Top with chilled cherry pie filling. To remove pie pieces easily, place hot wet towel around sides and bottom of pan before cutting.

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Chocolate Milk & Sports Drinks

Posted in Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2009
A glass of chocolate milk

Image via Wikipedia

While the Colbert Report is a comedy show, it typically features real (if often odd) news. This morning (I don’t stay up late enough to watch the show at night) I saw an episode in which Colbert noted that chocolate milk has been found to be as good as sports drinks. Of course, this is not a new claim. Back in 2006 there was a small study that supported this claim. I also recall that a study of sports drinks done years ago included Yoo Hoo (apparently as something of a joke). It seems that Yoo Hoo did better than the sports drinks.

While it might seem odd that chocolate milk (and Yoo Hoo) would be better than special formulated sports drinks, it actually makes sense. After all, most sports drinks work by providing fluids and calories. Chocolate milk does just that, plus the milk actually has a decent amount of nutritional value. Interestingly, many protein shake products are based on milk proteins.

Whenever I’ve felt a bit run down from working out, I’d go and buy a bottle of chocolate milk and drink it, despite the mocking that I would sometimes receive for drinking a kid’s drink. It always made me feel much better. the drink, not the mocking, of course. I had initially assumed it was mostly psychological (I really like chocolate milk) but, on reflection, realized that the milk has sugar, chocolate and other stuff that can restore energy. Apparently, I was ahead of my time once more.

While chocolate milk is a good sports drink, it does have some obvious problems. First, people often find it harder to keep milk down when exercising. Second, chocolate milk is not the sort of thing you want warming up in your sports bottle as you bike or run. Third, spilling milk over yourself and your clothes is even worse than getting sports drinks on you.

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