In Corn Syrup vs. Sugar Squabble, Which Sweetener Takes the Cake?

As Five More Companies Join Lawsuit to Stop Marketing HFCS as Its More Natural Counterpart, Ad Age Breaks Down Info on Both

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Corn Refiners's ad effort
Corn Refiners's ad effort

One of the biggest food fights of the year heated up again last week when five more sugar companies signed on to a lawsuit that seeks to stop the corn industry from marketing high-fructose corn syrup as a natural sugar, or "corn sugar." The Corn Refiners Association, backed by food giants such as Archer Daniels-Midland, is seeking the name change from the Food & Drug Administration. And while it awaits the ruling, the industry is running an ad campaign by Omnicom's DDB, Chicago, that includes TV spots featuring parents walking through cornfields declaring that whether corn sugar or cane sugar, "your body can't tell the difference."

"The simpler the message, the easier to remember," Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, told Ad Age . "Sugar is sugar." The debate is even becoming part of pop culture, with "Saturday Night Live" spoofing the ads in a skit featuring two moms fighting over the issue. "SNL" comes down on the sugar side, with the kicker showing the corn supporter's kid, who is , um, a little bit too big for her age.

But who's really right? We decided to take a closer look at the key issues, while pulling some conclusions from neutral sources such as university and government studies and the American Dietetic Association.

What is corn sugar?

CORN INDUSTRY: Says "corn sugar" more accurately describes high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) because corn syrup is nothing more than sugar made from corn.

SUGAR INDUSTRY: Accuses the corn industry of seeking to "co-opt the goodwill" of the phrase "sugar." Says "corn sugar" is already used by the FDA to describe what it says is another sweetener product made from corn starch. Using corn sugar to describe another product will "mislead" consumers.

VERDICT: The FDA already has a definition for "corn sugar" and it refers to a substance "commonly called dextrose" -- which refers to a type of sugar that can be made from corn. HFCS is made by processing corn syrup into a product that contains fructose, which is a sugar found in fruits. So the FDA would have to amend its definition or create a new one.

Is high fructose corn syrup "natural"?

CORN INDUSTRY: Says it has no artificial or synthetic ingredients, and the "process used to make sugar is remarkably similar to that used for high-fructose corn syrup."

SUGAR INDUSTRY: Says there is "no naturally occurring fructose in corn or corn starch" and that HFCS is a man-made product that did not exist before the late 1960s.

VERDICT: HFCS cannot be made without processing, as described above. But pure sugar takes some intervention as well, like shredding and squeezing cane stalks to extract a juice that is boiled and sent through a centrifuge, according to Sugar.org.

Are high-fructose corn syrup and sugar nutritional equals?

CORN INDUSTRY: Says corn sugar contains the same two simple sugars as table sugar (glucose and fructose), contains the same amount of calories and "is handled the same by the body as table sugar."

SUGAR INDUSTRY: No. Says there are "clear molecular differences" between HFCS and sugar and that the body processes them differently. Points to studies linking HFCS to a "variety of health problems, principally obesity, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides."

VERDICT: The American Dietetic Association says studies show "little evidence" that HFCS "differs uniquely" from sugar and other sweeteners in how it affects metabolism or weight gain, although it notes that more data are needed. But a 2010 study by University of Princeton researchers found that rats fed HFCS gained more weight than those fed the same amount of calories from sugar.

Of course, consumers would be wise to limit their intake of sweeteners of any kind. Or, as the Dietetic Association says in a report, "there is a role for sugars and HFCS in our food supply," but "we can get too much of a good (sweet) thing."

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