Sugar and Corn Industries Battle in Court Over Ad Claims

Campaign That Touted High Fructose Corn Syrup as 'Corn Sugar' Comes Under Microscope

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Corn Refiners Association ad
Corn Refiners Association ad
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A 7-year-old campaign that sought to portray high-fructose corn syrup as natural is at the center of a false advertising trial that began today which pits the corn industry against sugar companies.

The case being heard in a Los Angeles federal court could finally bring closure to a battle that has been brewing since 2011, when several sugar companies filed a lawsuit against the Corn Refiners Association alleging that the trade group misled consumers by trying to rebrand HFCS as "corn sugar."

The campaign in question launched in 2008 and was called "Sweet Surprise." Ads stated that "sugar is sugar" with some spots showing parents walking through cornfields declaring that whether corn sugar or cane sugar, "your body can't tell the difference." The campaign was created by DDB, Chicago. The agency no longer works for the corn association, according to a DDB spokeswoman.

The campaign stopped running in 2012, according to an association spokeswoman -- although the association still maintains a website called sweetsurprise.com. The site promotes "facts about high fructose corn syrup," including that "HFCS is simply a form of sugar made from corn." The association currently does not have a creative ad agency, according to a spokeswoman.

"We expect to prove to a jury trial that the sugar association has purposely misled the public to create false health concerns and fear about high fructose corn syrup -- all for the purpose of increasing sugar's market share," John Bode, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said in a statement issued this week.

Mark Lanier, the lead attorney for sugar growers, said in a statement that the corn industry's "misleading ad campaign caused price erosion and lost profits stemming from the artificially reduced demand for sugar caused by defendants' false and misleading 'Sweet Surprise' campaign." The sugar industry filed the suit "when it became clear that efforts were underway to steal the goodwill of the 'sugar' brand," he added.

The corn industry already lost one battle when the Food and Drug Administration in 2012 denied a petition to rename HFCs as "corn sugar."

Some big brands, such as Gatorade, have ditched corn syrup for sugar in recent years. Other brands like Hunt's Ketchup have begun selling line extensions with no HFCS. Hunt's markets its product as "100% Natural Ketchup."

Big soda brands like Pepsi and Coke still contain HFCS. But marketers are increasingly selling "real sugar" line extensions. Meanwhile, cane sugar seems to be a common trait in the burgeoning "craft cola" segment, including PepsiCo's new Caleb's Kola.

"Cane sugar somehow has a shinier halo over it than other refined sugars and certainly high fructose corn syrup," said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for NPD Group, which tracks diet trends.

U.S. consumption of HFCS is expected to fall to 5.2 billion metric tons in 2015, down from nearly 6.7 billion metric tons in 2001, according to Euromonitor International. NPD found that 22% of adults said they were "very" or "extremely" concerned about HFCS in 2014, up from 17% in 2011.

Even if the corn refiners win the court case, they would face a challenge in the court of public opinion, Mr. Seifer said. "They would still have to do a pretty good job of convincing consumers that they are just the same thing as sugar," he said.

If the sugar industry wins the case, "it's not smooth sailing for them either," he said. That is because more consumers are removing sugar of any kind from their diets. This is behind the precipitous decline in soda consumption. Indeed, sugar is now the top concern among consumers, surpassing concerns about fat, which has been declining, Mr. Seifer said.