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In a recent communication with the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declined to authorize the use of the term corn sugar for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The CRA has been troubled in recent years by the increasingly negative image of HFCS, due in large part to amassing research that suggests the body may metabolize it differently than table sugar [see, for instance, 1,2]. They’ve responded to this negative press by launching a campaign called Sweet Surprise designed to cast HFCS in a positive light, and have also requested that the FDA allow product manufacturers to list HFCS as corn sugar on packages.
The FDA, however, did not acquiesce for two major reasons. The first, they explained in the communication, is that the term corn sugar is already in use — and has been since the early 1970s — to refer to glucose derived from corn sources. Because some people are very sensitive to fructose and can’t tolerate it in the diet, these consumers specifically seek out products containing corn sugar (as opposed to those containing sucrose or HFCS). To repurpose the name corn sugar as a euphemism for HFCS could confuse and potentially harm these consumers. Secondly, the FDA wrote, sugar is defined to mean a sweet substance in the form of a crystalline solid, while syrup is defined as a sweet substance in the form of a liquid. Because HFCS is a liquid, it can’t be properly called a sugar for labeling purposes.
Renaming of HFCS aside, the Sweet Surprise campaign also uses Internet, radio, and television advertising to improve HFCS’s image. A major pillar of this effort is that HFCS is nearly identical in composition to table sugar. This is more or less true; table sugar is a chemical called sucrose, which is a disaccharide. The term disaccharide means “two-sugar unit”; specifically, sucrose molecules consist of the smaller sugars glucose and fructose, chemically bonded to one another. As such, sucrose is a 50:50 mix of glucose and fructose. The most common form of HFCS contains 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% other sugar molecules . While the ratio of glucose to fructose is nearly the same in HFCS and sucrose, the big difference — that which biochemists suspect may be responsible for differences in the way the body treats the sweeteners — is that the glucose and fructose aren’t chemically bonded together in HFCS. No one knows why this would affect the body; after all, sucrose is chemically digested into its glucose and fructose components before it’s absorbed into the bloodstream, meaning that the cells shouldn’t really be able to tell sucrose from HFCS. Nevertheless, evidence increasingly suggests that they can, and perhaps more research in the coming years will be able to reveal why.
In the meantime, consumers who prefer to avoid HFCS-containing foods can continue to look for it on product labels, and the term corn sugar will continue to mean “pure glucose from a corn source.”
- Bocarsly et al. High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2010 Nov;97(1):101-6.
- Light et al. The type of caloric sweetener added to water influences weight gain, fat mass, and reproduction in growing Sprague-Dawley female rats. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2009 Jun;234(6):651-61.
- White, JL. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:1716S–21S.