LOS ANGELES — The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned the corn industry over its ongoing use of the term "corn sugar" to describe high fructose corn syrup, asking them to stop using the proposed new name before it has received regulatory approval, The Associated Press has learned.
The Corn Refiners Association wants to use "corn sugar" as an alternative name for the widely used liquid sweetener currently labeled as high fructose corn syrup on most sodas and packaged foods. They're attempting an image makeover after some scientists linked the product to obesity, diabetes and other health problems; some food companies now tout products that don't contain the ingredient.
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Though it could take another year before the FDA rules on the request made last September to change the name, the Corn Refiners Association has for months been using "corn sugar" on television commercials and at least two websites: cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.
A series of high-profile television, online and print advertisements tell consumers that "sugar is sugar" and that corn sugar is natural and safe, provided it's consumed in moderation.
In a July 12 letter obtained by the AP, Barbara Schneeman, an FDA director, wrote to the Corn Refiners Association to say she was concerned with the trade group using the terms high fructose corn syrup and "corn sugar" interchangeably.
"We request that you re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term 'corn sugar' as a synonym for (high fructose corn syrup)," Schneeman wrote.
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As of Thursday, two months after the letter was sent, none of that wording had been changed.
Audrae Erickson, spokeswoman for the Corn Refiners Association, said in an email to the AP that the group is currently reviewing its materials and will make changes if necessary.
"We do not believe that anyone could be confused or believe that the statements regarding 'corn sugar' on the websites refer to anything other than high fructose corn syrup," Erickson wrote.
The FDA has no regulatory control over the corn association's advertising because it is not selling a product but promoting an industry. The federal agency can prosecute companies that incorrectly label ingredients and Schneeman wrote that the FDA may launch enforcement action against food companies listing high fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar."
Beet and cane sugar producers have filed a lawsuit over claims that corn sugar is the same, saying they amount to false advertising. A federal judge is reviewing a motion to dismiss the case.
Scientists are split over whether high fructose corn syrup is any more damaging than regular sugar. The American Medical Association has said there's not enough evidence to restrict its use of high fructose corn syrup, though it wants more research.
In general, experts agree, consumers should be eating less sugar, whatever its origin.
Internal documents obtained by the AP indicate high-level skepticism over the planned name change, partly because regulators already have a substance on their books called "corn sugar," which is used as another name for dextrose.
Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, wrote in an internal email that a previous attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just "corn syrup" was misleading, could have robbed consumers of important information and would invite ridicule.
"It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it," Taylor told colleagues in an email dated March 15, 2010. "If we allow it, we will rightly be mocked both on the substance of the outcome and the process through which it was achieved."
The proposed "corn syrup" name was subsequently dropped when corn makers filed a formal petition seeking "corn sugar" as the new name.
Taylor heads the FDA's food section and oversees food labeling to ensure products contain clear nutritional information.
FDA spokesman Doug Karas said Taylor's comments should be looked at in the context of the proposed name change to "corn syrup" and nothing should be inferred about what the FDA's decision may be regarding the ongoing review to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar."
Seven U.S. senators, all from America's corn-growing heartland, filed a letter with the FDA urging them to adopt the "corn syrup" name to help clear up consumer confusion.
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