We’ve been following this story for a while, so let’s recap. In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to authorize “corn sugar” as an acceptable alternative term for high fructose corn syrup; the CRA then launched a multi-million dollar mass media campaign. (You know the ads – children running through corn fields with dads who know that sugar is sugar, and insulted moms with Kool-Aid at birthday parties snarking: what have you heard about high fructose corn syrup? That it’s fine in moderation?) That in turn led to a lawsuit from sugar production companies and trade associations claiming false advertising, while consumer groups appealed to the FDA to deny the request. FDA officials slammed the notion of corn sugar behind closed doors, but in public the administration was slow to offer any response one way or another.
Dear Ms. Erickson:
This letter responds to your citizen petition filed on September 14, 2010, as supplemented on July 29, 2011. After careful review of your citizen petition and for the reasons described below, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is denying your petition in accordance with 21 CFR 10.30(e)(3).
But why did the FDA reject the Corn Refiners Association’s petition? One can’t simply reject a petition because one feels like it, after all. According to the letter, it’s as simple as the fact that high fructose corn syrup doesn’t match up with the FDA’s definition of the word “sugar”:
First, you contend consumers are confused by the name “high fructose corn syrup” and that the proposed alternate name “corn sugar” more closely reflects consumer expectations and more accurately describes the basic nature of HFCS and its characterizing properties. You base this on the following: You state that HFCS and sugar are equivalent by every parameter of relevance to consumers, for example, that they have equivalent ratios of fructose and glucose and both are metabolized similarly in the body.
However, FDA’s regulatory approach for the nomenclature of sugar and syrups is that sugar is a solid, dried, and crystallized food; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food… consistent with the common understanding of sugar and syrup as referenced in a dictionary. Consequently, the use of the term “corn sugar” for HFCS would suggest that HFCS is a solid, dried, and crystallized sweetener obtained from corn. Instead, HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose. Thus, the use of the term “sugar” to describe HFCS, a product that is a syrup, would not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties.
Oh, and as for the second part: the term “corn sugar” is already occupied. It’s another name for dextrose monohydrate, the FDA notes, and it had been for over 30 years. The Corn Refiners Association had asked the FDA to eliminate that terminology so that they could use the term for their own means, but the FDA points out that this would only further confuse consumers who need to stick with dextrose sugars and avoid sucrose and fructose for health reasons. And wasn’t the whole motivation behind this name change supposedly a desire to avoid confusing consumers?
So that’s all fair enough. With such a cut and dry declension, it’s a bit boggling that it took so long for the FDA to reach this decision – until one remembers how large and influential the corn industry is. Given all of the implications that come along with this decision, there’s no doubt that FDA officials had to think long and hard before committing to anything. But now that they have, that they held their ground is quite encouraging indeed.