A Sugar By Any Other Name…


The point is that all names aren’t equal. Some are better than others, which is why I support the petition to let food makers refer to high fructose corn syrup by a simpler and more accurate moniker: corn sugar.

Last week, the Corn Refiners Association formally asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit the change.

The funny thing about high fructose corn syrup is that a lot of it isn’t especially high in fructose, which is a type of sugar. One popular formulation contains 42 percent fructose. This is less fructose than the amount contained in table sugar, which is 50 percent fructose. It’s also less than honey, which is typically about 47 percent fructose. (A separate variety of high fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose–only a little bit more than table sugar and honey.)

High fructose corn syrup got its name not because it has a high level of fructose in an absolute sense. Instead, it has a high level of fructose relative to traditional corn syrup.

Many people assume–erroneously–that high fructose corn syrup contains unusually high levels of fructose. According to one survey, 58 percent of Americans think high fructose corn syrup has more fructose than table sugar. They don’t seem to realize that what isn’t fructose is usually glucose and that the truth is these ingredients are all 100-percent sugar.

Some food companies have responded to this misunderstanding in a peculiar way. Rather than trying to educate consumers, they’ve removed high fructose corn syrup from their products–only to replace them with ingredients that are essentially the same even though they have different names.

I sympathize with the plight of these food makers. Yet as a corn farmer who grows the crops that processors use to make corn sugar, this appeasement is more than a little aggravating.

High fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener that comes from corn. As a food ingredient, it’s no different from sugar produced from sugar cane and sugar beets. It has the same number of calories as table sugar. “Once they are absorbed into the bloodstream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable,” says the American Dietetic Association.

So it makes sense to change the name in a way that gives consumers a clearer picture of what they’re eating. Switching from “high fructose corn syrup” to “corn sugar” has the virtue of using ordinary language to inform the public about a food ingredient.

One of the most refreshing aspects of this proposal is that it doesn’t obscure the truth. We live in a society that often uses words to talk around a subject and avoid the heart of the matter. Thus prisons become “correctional facilities” and short people are dubbed “height-challenged.”

By accepting corn sugar as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup, the FDA will go in the opposite direction and embrace a term that everyday consumers will understand immediately. Consumers who want to keep a close watch on the sugar intake will appreciate the plainspoken honesty of “corn sugar.”

The FDA has approved semantic adjustments in the past. It has allowed food makers to refer to prunes as dried plums and rapeseed oil as canola oil. With respect to the current request, the FDA may require a period of co-labeling, in which ingredients are listed as “high fructose corn syrup (corn sugar).” This will help consumers know that the two names refer to the same thing.

Corn sugar is an important food ingredient that we’ve been eating for more than 40 years. The only thing that will change are the words on the label–and they’ll represent an improvement over the words we use now.

John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in western Champaign County Illinois. He volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck

John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Illinois. He served on the Global Farmer Network Board of Directors, and is a former Chair. John currently serves as Chairman and President of the GROWMARK Board of Directors-a farm supply and marketing cooperative that operates principally in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ontario.

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