Sugar is sugar is sugar, right? That's pretty much true - but you might not know it from reading many product labels, or from following the confusing debate over the weirdly named product known as "high-fructose corn syrup."
Today, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for permission to relabel "high-fructose corn syrup" as "corn sugar" on ingredient labels. And it finds itself on almost the same page as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, hardly a natural ally.
For years, nutrition advocates have tussled with the corn industry over high-fructose corn syrup's place in the American diet. Some have argued that HFCS, whose name suggests that it may have some of the nutritive value of fruit, is especially to blame for the nation's growing obesity rates. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has described that as an urban myth, though it hardly exonerates HFCS. It says the product, widely used in soft drinks and other empty-calorie products, is equally to blame along with other added sugars.
Which brings us to today's FDA petition. A spokesman for the Corn Refiners says "independent research demonstrates that the current labeling is confusing to American consumers. This consumer confusion is leading some companies to reformulate their food and beverage products with sugar, in lieu of high-fructose corn syrup, claiming 'better for you' and 'new and improved' – when they are simply replacing one sugar with another." (You can read its news release here.)
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, largely agrees:
The term "high-fructose corn syrup" has misled many people into thinking that the sweetener is composed largely of fructose. But it is not. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same. So soft drinks and other products sweetened with sugar are every bit as conducive to weight gain as products sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. The bottom line is that people should consume less of all added sugars.
I don’t know if “corn sugar” is the best term, but it’s better than “high-fructose corn syrup.”
Jacobson, a microbiologist, has been highly critical of the corn industry in the past, as he was in 2008 when he criticized its ad campaign claim that HFCS “has the same natural sweeteners as table sugar.” The chemistry is a bit confusing - click here for a more detailed explanation - but Jacobson says the most important thing to remember is that they pose largely equivalent risks from a health standpoint: Consume too much of either, and you'll gain weight.
Ironically, there is some research suggesting that fructose itself "may be more conducive to weight gain than glucose," Jacobson says. But table sugar is simply sucrose, a molecule that breaks down into equal parts glucose and fructose, which makes it roughly equivalent with HFCS, Jacobson says. Despite the "high-fructose" name, he says, HFCS averages about 50 percent fructose. So there is no clear advantage or disadvantage to either as a sweetener.
Jacobson criticizes "the craziness that high-fructose corn syrup is toxic, that it’s going to make you fat overnight, that it’s an evil product of agribusiness."
It's just sugar, with all the empty-calorie risks that added sugar entails. Which is why he says relabeling it as "corn sugar" may well be a reasonable idea.