In order to combat the stigma associated with a sweetener it calls “highly disparaged and highly misunderstood”, the Corn Refiners Association recently announced that it will move to change the name of high fructose corn syrup. In a petition to the FDA, the group requested that the the oft derided sweetener simply be called “corn sugar” on the lists of ingredients which appear on grocery food labels.
At first glance the new name may look no better, but it’s not hard to see why the Corn Refiners Association would actually prefer the traditionally negative connotations of “sugar”. If the increasingly prominent marketing of foods made without high fructose corn syrup is any indication, consumers are not only rejecting the sweetener but eagerly opting for alternatives.
Advice from some of the most popular media personalities and self-styled health experts consistently ranks high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) among the worst food items out there. Dr. Oz put the sweetener in the top spot in a list of “10 major agers” as well as in a “Food hall of shame”. Lesser known internet personalities, who rely the lack of critical scrutiny afforded by the medium, often make sweeping or broad denunciations of HFCS, implicating it in a range of scary diseases without clear, unequivocal scientific data to back up their claims.
Even those who aren’t devotees of modern health gurus seem to be scanning through food labels in earnest these days, seeking out unrecognizable ingredients. Such consumers may not hang on every word from doctors or published research, but growing concerns about the rising rates of obesity and diabetes may fuel more caution when it comes to food. For such shoppers, the easiest shortcut of all might be to simply avoid ingredients which sound “unnatural”, assuming that “natural”, recognizable foods are healthier.
Since the vast majority of foods are derived from plants, animals, or fungi in one way or another, separating foods that are “natural” from those which are “unnatural” is a potentially messy and uncertain prospect. As early as 1984, scientists publishing an opinion in the British Medical Journal expressed doubt regarding the usefulness of applying the word “unnatural” to various foods. Although the FDA has no formal definition for the word “natural”, the Corn Refiners Association argues that the technique used to create high fructose corn syrup, which involves no artificially created or synthetic additives, qualifies as “natural”.
High fructose corn syrup is produced largely by milling and fermenting corn. While the combination of substances used to make hfcs may not occur in nature, neither do the ingredient combinations found in fruit or vegetable smoothies, or any other number of food items consumed around the world.
Since high fructose corn syrup is ultimately a combination of glucose and fructose, two natural sugars, the new “corn sugar” name certainly sums up the contents. Viewed in that light, as sugar, smart consumers should be no less prone to avoid it. No matter how much debate there may be over the specific effects of high fructose corn syrup, there is little debate when it comes to sugar. Although sugars in many fruits are consumed along with the fiber and essential vitamins present in the fruit itself, sugar on its own, whether as table sugar or “corn sugar”, is nothing more than empty calories.
In the end, the debate over high fructose corn syrup seems to be a moot point when it comes to healthy food choice. The new “corn sugar” name may very well give consumers a more justifiable reason to avoid it. With consistent calls from organizations such as the American Heart Association to limit daily sugar consumption, the best advice may just be to avoid sugar by any name.