WASHINGTON, DC–The Sugar Association, citing recent consumer research and a new study on human metabolism, advised the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) to reject a pending request to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
In fifteen pages of comments submitted to the FDA, the Sugar Association confirmed that the proposed name change would mislead consumers. The comments included findings from a recent in-depth survey by consumer research expert Joel B. Cohen, Ph.D., a University of Florida Gainsville professor who previously has been commissioned to conduct consumer research for the Federal Trade Commission and professional organizations including the National Cancer Institute.
The survey he conducted for the Sugar Association was called “Product Ingredients Study Report.”
The HFCS survey results and associated comments were added to the public record in response to the Corn Refiners Association’s (CRA) September 2010 Food and Drug Administration petition seeking to replace the name of HFCS.
Many consumers read food labels to identify and avoid foods that contain HFCS and, as a result, sales of the sweetener have fallen. In response, the CRA began a multi-million dollar campaign to promote HFCS as “corn sugar”-which is the name of an entirely different sweetener (dextrose)-on its websites and in TV advertisements. CRA also petitioned the FDA to remove the “corn sugar” name from the real corn sugar product and transfer it to HFCS. This would enable food companies to remove the “high-fructose corn syrup” name from their ingredient labels and refer instead to “corn sugar.”
The comments also refute the CRA claim that there are no metabolic differences between HFCS and sugar. They reference a groundbreaking study, jointly conducted by several scientific departments at both the University of Florida and the University of Colorado Denver, and published on Dec. 5, 2011 by the scientific journal Metabolism, which shows significant differences in human absorption and metabolism of HFCS compared with sugar.
“The Metabolism study confirms that the human body experiences significantly different acute metabolic effects from the consumption of HFCS when compared to sugar,” said Andy Briscoe, president and CEO of the Sugar Association. “This research builds on earlier animal studies suggesting that HFCS and sucrose can have different effects on body weight and obesogenic measures. The FDA should accordingly reject the proposed name change in the best interest of consumers’ health and their right to know.”
FDA requires the use of a common and usual name in product ingredient lists so that consumers know what specific ingredients are in the products they purchase. Consumers have been aware of the ingredient known as “high fructose corn syrup” since the early 1980s. The Cohen Survey demonstrated that changing the ingredient’s name to “corn sugar” would mislead consumers into believing that their food contained an entirely different sweetener.
In recent public comments, CRA suggested that the FDA can prevent consumer confusion associated with the name change by mandating FDA coordinated “consumer education, including a period of co-labeling” with both names. Although CRA contends that renaming HFCS is intended to correct misperceptions about the manufactured sweetener, the Cohen Survey demonstrates that a name change would not significantly alter consumer preference, but it would alter consumer behavior by creating–rather than eliminating–confusion.
The Sugar Association noted in its comments that it is illogical for FDA to allow a name switch that would require a government-mandated educational campaign to help overcome confusion created by the change.
CRA has also attempted to dismiss concerns about consumers with heredity fructose intolerance, a life-threatening condition. These consumers are at risk from consuming HFCS but not from consuming authentic corn sugar (dextrose–which contains no fructose). CRA attempts to diminish this serious safety concern by arguing that these consumers “ultimately” will find ways to protect themselves from the confusion.
The Sugar Association notes in its new comments that it would be wrong for the CRA to place this burden on vulnerable consumers in order to stop declining sales of HFCS for the benefit of the agribusiness giants that are the CRA’s members, such as Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill and others.
Although CRA has argued that only a small percentage of consumers are trying to avoid HFCS as a food ingredient, the Cohen survey showed a very substantial preference against the ingredient and showed further that consumer avoidance of HFCS is based on concerns over ingredient itself rather than its name.
The Sugar Association argues that the proposed name change would only deceive and mislead consumers as to the identity of the HFCS. Therefore, the Sugar Association requested that the FDA preserve consumers right to know by denying the CRA petition.
In a separate action, in October, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that a coalition of American sugar farmers and producers had provided sufficient evidence about the HFCS advertising campaign by the CRA to demonstrate “a reasonable probability of success” in proving that its key claims are false. The lawsuit alleges that senior executives of agribusiness conglomerates Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill and others “organize[d] collectively in order to dominate and … control” the ongoing marketing campaign to rename HFCS as “corn sugar.” Their national advertising campaign also claims that HFCS is a “natural” product equivalent to real sugar from cane and beet plants. The sugar farmers argue that those claims are untrue.