Sugar vs. corn syrup: A court battle over the semantics of sweetness

Dylan Stableford

A group of corn refiners asked a federal judge in a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit brought against them by the sugar industry, which contends corn syrup makers are misleading consumers with advertising that claims high fructose corn syrup product is simply "corn sugar," "natural" and "nutritionally the same as sugar."

"It is not," Adam Fox, an attorney for the sugar industry, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is man-made. Yet they are advertising it as identical to sugar cane."

"Whether its corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can't tell the difference," an ad sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association says.

The corn refinersincluding Archer-Daniels-Midland and four other companiesargued in court that they cannot be held liable for statements made by the association even though they are members.

In 2010, the association asked for the approval of the Food and Drug Administration to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to the healthier-sounding "corn sugar" on food labels. The FDA has yet to rule on the matter, but Audrae Erickson, president of the association, said in a statement Wednesday that "it is wrong for the processed sugar industry to attempt to stifle this educational campaign."

The group of sugar growers are seeking triple damages under U.S. antitrust law, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and a court ruling to stop the corn industry claims.

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall dismissed individual corn refiners from the case, but allowed the sugar producers' lawsuit against the association to proceed and claims against refiners to be reinstated.

The reason the case is important: corn syrup's tarnished image in the yes of health-conscious consumers has led to lower sales.

Soda sales, for instance, fell sharply in 2011, as Americans turned bottled water, tea and sports and energy drinks. According to Beverage Digest (via CNBC), sales of Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi and Mt. Dew all fell.

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