There has been a lot of back and forth about real and perceived differences between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) over the years — including here at Grist, where Tom Laskawy has explored the contentious topic at length. And while the science is definitely still unfolding, the fact that the Corn Refiners Association has shown a strong interest in blurring the line between the two is certainly compelling reason to suspect there are, in fact, some noteworthy differences.
As of Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees. The agency released an official response to the Corn Refiners Association’s 2010 request to refer to the substance as “corn sugar” with a resounding no. The reasons they gave read as benignly technical, but also hint at the differences in the kinds of processes needed to make sugar and HFCS (one being a highly industrial, synthetic process resulting in a food that could not exist in nature if we wanted it to). The statement reads:
… the use of the term “corn sugar” for HFCS would suggest that HFCS is a solid, dried, and crystallized sweetener obtained from corn. Instead, HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose.
The report also points out that the name “corn sugar” is already spoken for, and is used on food labels to describe dextrose.
But it’s not just concerned parents who want to see a clear distinction maintained between the two additives. The Sugar Association also appears to be holding a hard line. The industry group even went so far as to issue a press release recently when a medical study out of UCLA resulted in the headline “Sugar can make you dumb.” The group blamed the Corn Refiners Association’s “multimillion-dollar advertising campaign” (which no doubt includes the often-parodied moms-at-a-birthday-party television commercials) for generating the confusion.
Indeed, the UCLA study would also give me pause if I were in the sugar business. (Okay, I admit it gives me pause anyway.) When the team of scientists “zeroed in on high-fructose corn syrup, an inexpensive liquid six times sweeter than cane sugar,” a press release from the school reads, they found that “eating too much fructose could block insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar for the energy required for processing thoughts and emotions.”
Now if that study had focused on a substance recently rebranded “corn sugar,” would its implications be nearly as meaningful? Maybe not. Thanks to this move by the FDA, we don’t have to wonder about that — for the time being.
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