In court: sugar vs. high-fructose corn syrup

Annie Baxter Nov 2, 2015

In court: sugar vs. high-fructose corn syrup

Annie Baxter Nov 2, 2015

What is the nutritional difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar? A jury will consider that question in a trial starting Tuesday in a California federal district court.

Groups representing producers and refiners of cane sugar and sugar beets are suing a corn refiners trade group and its members, including Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.

The litigation pivots around claims that high-fructose corn syrup is nutritionally equivalent to table sugar, which the sugar groups say is false advertising. 

The corn refiners are tossing that charge right back, saying the sugar groups’ disparagement of them is false advertising. 

High-fructose corn syrup is a highly processed product derived from corn. Food scientists developed enzymes to convert corn into the sweetener in the 1960s.

Because it was cheap, browned nicely in baked goods, and was more shelf-stable than sugar, the product made its way into scores of foods and beverages, like soda, bread and ketchup.

The per-person domestic supply of high-fructose corn syrup peaked in 1999, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

But then it began to drop.

“What happened is that myths started to arise,” said Dan Webb, a lawyer representing the Corn Refiners Association and its members. “People misunderstood the product and believed it could be worse for you in a way that sugar was not.”

Online and elsewhere, the belief proliferated that high-fructose corn syrup was unnatural because of the amount of processing corn goes through to get to that state. Webb noted table sugar is also processed.

“Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are not picked off of a vine or a tree and put into your mouth,” he said.

The product’s name has also attracted scorn. Fructose is a simple sugar that taxes the liver when consumed in excess. So the words “high-fructose” have repelled some consumers. But the sweetener is only named as such to differentiate it from plain old corn syrup, from which it’s made.

High-fructose corn syrup actually has about as much fructose as table sugar. Some formulations have slightly more; some have slightly less.

The corn refiners pumped millions of dollars into a marketing campaign to clear this up. And they tried, unsuccessfully, to change their product’s name to the nicer sounding “corn sugar.”

“That effort included what we believed to have been a deliberate campaign at false advertising, a claim that high-fructose corn syrup was the same as common table sugar,” said Mark Lanier, a lawyer representing the Sugar Association and related plaintiffs.

Those groups tie high-fructose to a number of ill effects, including obesity.

“There are a number of studies that show high-fructose corn syrup has a more toxic effect on the body,” Lanier said.

The American Medical Association’s position on high-fructose corn syrup, issued in 2008, recommended further study of the sweetener but indicated there was not enough evidence that people should restrict their use of it.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition expert at New York University, went a step further, rejecting the popular belief that high-fructose corn syrup is notably worse than sugar.

“Consumers think that high-fructose corn syrup is poison,” she said. “It’s not. It’s just like sugar except in liquid form.”

Nestle is known for her scathing critiques of the food and beverage industry, such as her latest book, “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). She said she’s no fan of high-fructose corn syrup or table sugar.

“Everybody consumes too much of both and would be healthier eating less,” she said.

Food and beverage companies are responding to the consumer backlash by dropping high-fructose corn syrup from some of their products and using sugar instead.

“I wouldn’t be able to answer how this might play out in a court of law,” said Darren Seifer, the food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group, a consulting firm. “But in the court of public opinion it looks like sugar might have won already.”

Regardless of who wins in the real court of law, both sides may face more battles. Seifer said more than half of American adults are trying to cut down on or avoid added sugars in all forms.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.