COMMENTARY | Over the last few years, we've been bombarded with a series of mixed messages about the health and safety of high fructose corn syrup, a heavily processed sweetener derived from corn. Advertisements sponsored by the corn industry assure us that our bodies "can't tell the difference" between corn syrup and cane sugar, while the cane sugar industry and its followers insist that the two sweeteners are virtually incomparable. Yesterday, the FDA ruled against a motion by the corn industry to rename their concoction "corn sugar," and I believe -- regardless of whether or not corn syrup is equivalent to its crystalline counterpart -- that the FDA has made the right choice.
The FDA has previously established its stance that there is no credible evidence that high fructose corn syrup is more harmful than cane sugar, and the syrup remains on the FDA's generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list of food ingredients. Although several studies, many of which were collected and reviewed in the Huffington Post, suggest some dangers from high fructose corn syrup not seen in conventional sugars, the fact remains that these concerns remain largely theoretical. Even still, a change in the syrup's name from "high fructose corn syrup" to "cane sugar" would be inappropriate and unfair to consumers.
One major problem with the name change is that we already have an established definition for what is, in culinary terms, a sugar. By culinary terms, sugars are crystalline solids, not liquids. To call high fructose corn syrup "sugar" would be dishonest and misleading. While it may or may not make a difference in the health of those buying the product, it would be inappropriate for the FDA to set a precedent allowing companies to misleadingly rename ingredients to make them more appealing to consumers.
Another issue also makes the proposed renaming inappropriate. A product called corn sugar already exists, and it isn't high fructose corn syrup -- it's dextrose. Dextrose is a solid crystalline sugar refined from corn and containing only glucose, whereas high fructose corn syrup is a combination of glucose and fructose. The difference is nutritionally quite relevant, since some people are instructed to use only dextrose as a sweetener and could encounter problems when using a product containing "corn sugar" when it, in fact, contains HFCS.
Many consumers also care to avoid high fructose corn syrup in principle -- not necessarily because of health concerns -- and should have the right to do so without having their choices hindered by deceptive labeling. I avoid high fructose corn syrup primarily because of its ecological impact. The amount of fossil fuel necessary to process it is unforgivable, and the industry is associated with significant amounts of pesticide use and genetic modification. We consumers vote with our dollars and have a right to know which principles we're supporting when we make a purchase.
Regardless of the weak and unproven claim that high fructose corn syrup is identical to cane sugar in its impact on the human body, high fructose corn syrup is high fructose corn syrup, and only sugar is truly sugar. I applaud the FDA's refusal to allow the corn industry to deceptively and willfully mislabel their products.
Juniper Russo is a health advocate, freelance writer, and dedicated mom living in Chattanooga, Tenn.