March 21, 2012 -- High fructose corn syrup producers are defending their advertising campaign that says "sugar is sugar," but sugar producers are saying the artificial sweetener is no sweet substitute.
In a court hearing Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, the Corn Refiners Association and its members are defending themselves in a lawsuit filed by eight sugar producers and two sugar associations, which claim the former produced false advertising.
The Corn Refiners Association started an "educational campaign" in 2008 to "correct misinformation" about high fructose corn syrup. Its current television spots, which claim that "your body can't tell the difference" between high fructose corn syrup and sugar, began airing in September 2010.
High fructose corn syrup is widely used as a substitute for sugar in products like Pepsi and Mountain Dew because it mixes easily and can extend shelf life according to the Mayo Clinic. It is also cheaper than sugar, in part because corn crops can be heavily subsidized by the government.
Many nutritionists have said the difference is just semantics and would prefer people eat less of the sweet stuff altogether.
"While there is some legitimate debate about the importance of differences in the metabolism of pure fructose, and table sugar, or sucrose, there is no good reason to differentiate high-fructose corn syrup from table sugar," David Katz, M.D., M.P.H. of Yale University, said. "This is a case where sugar is sugar, and our problem is excess. The dose makes the poison, of either variety."
Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said there's no evidence that the two sugars are any better or any worse for your health and "the rest of it is lawyering up."
The sugar producers include Western Sugar Cooperative, based in Colorado, Michigan Sugar Company, C & H Sugar Company Inc., based in Delaware, and other companies.
Fox said the sugar groups are seeking damages that are yet to be determined and want the Corn Refiners Association advertising to stop. The group also wants to launch "corrective advertising."
The defendants, Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, Cargill Inc., Corn Products International, Roquette America Inc., and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas Inc., are arguing in court that they should not be liable for the commercials which were produced by the Corn Refiners Association, also a named defendant.
Adam Fox, attorney for the sugar producing plaintiffs, said the member companies of the Corn Refiners Association should have to answer for the "false advertising" that they funded.
"The reason they do this is because the Corn Refiners Association doesn't really have any money. It gets money from the members," he said. "Even if we persuade the jury that the advertising is false, they want us to hold an empty bag."
The sugar groups are saying the advertising campaign is false and misleading in three ways. First, the advertising's claim that high fructose corn syrup is a natural product.
"It's man-made and requires advanced technologies not known until the 1960s and 1970s," Fox said. "You can't just cut open corn and find high fructose corn syrup. It has got to go through multiple steps which is unlike sugar, which can be found in sugar and sugar beets, which my clients grow and produce."
The Corn Refiners Association has pointed out that the FDA stated in 2008 "we would not object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing the HFCS produced by the manufacturing process…"
Fox countered that the FDA made that statement in an informal letter and not a formal advisory by the agency. Fox pointed to a statement from Michael Landa, Acting Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the FDA, who wrote in Sept. 2010 to a New Jersey district court on another matter that the aforementioned letter is "an informal communication and does not provide a binding agency interpretation..."
Second, the campaign characterizes that high fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar." Corn sugar is the FDA-approved name of a "distinct" corn starch product, dextrose, a crystalline form of glucose, Fox said.
Third, the sugar groups believe the campaign's claim that "your body can't tell the difference" between corn syrup and sugar is "false and misleading," Fox said.
The sugar groups point out that the enzyme, sucrase, is necessary to break up the molecular bonds of fructose and glucose, which are in equal parts, of sugar before they can enter the blood stream to be metabolized.
"So there's an additional step for digestion of real sugar. That step does not exist for high fructose corn syrup," Fox said.
The Corn Refiners Association has collected a number of quotes from physicians that say otherwise.
"The real deal about high fructose corn syrup is that your body doesn't see it any differently than sugar or honey. Why? Because HFCS is comprised of approximately equal ratios of glucose and fructose just like sugar (sucrose) and honey. It is purified from corn with no artificial ingredients as sugar is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets," Susan Mitchell, Ph.D., R.D., L.N., states in one quote.
Katz said high-fructose corn syrup, just like table sugar, is a mix of glucose and fructose. In table sugar, it's a 50:50 mix of both. In 'high' fructose corn syrup, it can be as much as 55 percent fructose, and 45 percent glucose.
"But that's what all the fuss is about," he said, "maximally, a 5 percent variance in the proportion of fructose. Sugar is sugar. We eat too much of it and the dose makes the poison."