It started with the name. Now four of the nation's largest corn processors are attempting to blame the Sugar Association. The problem is their product – high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – and the fact that is not the same as natural sugar.
After failing to gain approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the name for HFCS to "corn sugar" and then to stop a major national lawsuit against them in Los Angeles, Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), Cargill, Ingredion, and Tate & Lyle Ingredient Americas have filed a counterclaim against the Sugar Association. In it, they argue that the trade group – one of the plaintiffs in the original suit – has harmed them by publishing statements on its website that HFCS is meaningfully different from natural sugar.
The original lawsuit, Western Sugar Cooperative v. Archer-Daniels-Midland, Co., was filed in April 2011 by a group of sugar farmers to stop a multi-million dollar marketing campaign attempting to equate the two ingredients. The sugar farmers claimed that the HFCS advertising was false and misleading because it: (1) described HFCS as "natural" although advanced technology is required to transform corn starch at the molecular level; (2) called HFCS "corn sugar" although the FDA reserved that term for an entirely different sweetener; and (3) claimed that "your body can't tell the difference" between HFCS and sugar, although numerous scientific publications have reached the opposite conclusion.
The federal judge presiding over the lawsuit late last year ruled that the plaintiff sugar farmers had presented evidence demonstrating "a reasonable probability of success on their argument that the statements are false." In July, the federal court also rejected an effort by the corn refining giants to have the case against them dismissed.
"The defendants are pulling out every stop, first trying to avoid answering the lawsuit and now apparently trying to muddy the issues with their counterclaim," says Adam Fox of Squire Sanders, co-lead counsel for the Sugar Association and other plaintiffs in the case. "I am confident that this most recent tactical ploy by ADM, Cargill and the others won't fool anyone. The evidence plainly shows that sugar and HFCS are not the same. They are molecularly different. They are functionally different. The body can tell the difference."
A study published earlier this year in the journal Metabolism by researchers at the Universities of Florida and Colorado, one of several in recent years contrasting the two sweeteners, compared a HFCS-sweetened beverage with the same beverage type sweetened with natural sugar. The researchers examined numerous biomarkers in the people drinking the soft drinks and found "significantly different acute metabolic effects," prompting the researchers to conclude that "HFCS is more likely to cause acute adverse effects than sucrose."
In May, the FDA rejected a petition by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) – the trade association of ADM, Cargill, Ingredion and Tate & Lyle Ingredient Americas – to change the common or usual name for HFCS to "corn sugar." The FDA explained that "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." The FDA also stated that the name change could "pose a public health concern" to persons with fructose intolerance or malabsorption.
Since 1970, sales data compiled by market research companies show that U.S. per capita consumption of sugar has dropped by almost 40% while per capita consumption of HFCS has increased by more than 1,000%.