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US food industry wages bitter fight over sweeteners

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g1688 (Published 20 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1688
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Internal company documents made public in a lawsuit between US sugar and corn companies have shown how the food industry has spent tens of millions of dollars to sway public opinion and capture market share—“spinning” research results and backing ostensibly independent consumer groups to attack competitors.

The Sugar Association—a trade association based in Washington, DC—and a group of large US sugar producers filed the lawsuit in 2011 against major producers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and their industry trade group, the Corn Refiners Association.

The sugar companies charged that the corn refining companies, in a bid to halt a decline in HFCS sales, had conducted a “false and misleading” publicity campaign portraying HFCS as a natural product that was nutritionally the same as sugar—including changing its name to “corn sugar.”

The sugar companies argued that HFCS was not a natural product but a manmade one that was metabolized differently from sugar, which derives from sugar cane and sugar beet. By claiming that the two products were the same the HFCS producers sought to “co-opt the goodwill of ‘sugar,’” the lawsuit claimed.

The suit called for the court to order the HFCS producers to halt their publicity efforts and to pay damages for any financial losses the sugar companies claimed to have suffered from the efforts to rebrand HFCS as a natural product equivalent to sugar.

The HFCS producers called the suit an attack on free speech and argued that there was no evidence that the sugar producers had suffered losses. They further argued that it was the HFCS producers that had seen sales decline and charged that the sugar industry had promoted “false perceptions that consumers may have regarding HFCS.”

HFCS—a sweetener used in many beverages and food products—is produced by an enzymatic process that converts glucose from corn syrup into fructose. The resulting product is sweeter than sugar and cheaper. After its introduction to the market in the 1970s it quickly captured a substantial share of the sweetener market.

However, a decade ago researchers began to report that HFCS consumption might be associated with a number of adverse health effects, including diabetes and elevated triglycerides, and that it might be partly responsible for the soaring obesity rates in the United States.

Press reports about the research had an effect, and surveys soon found growing concern among consumers about the safety of HFCS, prompting some food and beverage producers to switch from HFCS to sugar.

A selection of documents made public by the lawsuit was posted on the internet by the New York Times in its coverage of the story.1

The Sugar Association encouraged the food and beverage industries to replace HFCS with sucrose, and a 2004 memo reviewing the association’s activities noted that it had “fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate of HFCS.”

Sales of HFCS flattened and then declined, and in 2008 the Corn Refiners Association hired Richard Berman, the president of a Washington public relations firm. An email from an employee of the food industry giant Cargill said that this appointment aimed “to identify the hidden links between the sugar industry and the anti-HFCS scientific research. It is widely assumed that sugar interests are behind the HFCS-trashing scientific studies that fail to identify their funding sources. However, we have no proof. We are hoping Berman’s [opposition] research expertise can uncover some facts.”

Both sides used the internet to make their case, and the Corn Refiners Association launched a website called “SweetSurprise.com” to provide “the facts about high fructose corn syrup.”

The Sugar Association expanded its website content to deal with the controversy. “HFCS is a food ingredient that has become widely used as a replacement for natural sugar during the past 40 years—the very period during which obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases have been on the rise,” the website noted. “Whether there is a cause and effect relationship is a matter to be settled by science, not by market power, and the Sugar Association leaves it up to informed individuals to decide for themselves which they would rather consume, based on the available facts.”

Both associations funded research directly or indirectly. For example, documents from the Corn Refiners Association indicated that it paid a retainer to James Rippe—a cardiologist and the founder and director of Rippe Health—and budgeted more than $2m (£1.2m; €1.5m) to fund his research studies. Acknowledging his industry ties, Rippe wrote reviews and commentaries for medical journals and newspapers and gave presentations defending the safety of HFCS.

Both sides of the debate turned to “consumer advocacy” groups to spread their message. To oppose the initiative to have HFCS renamed as corn sugar, the Sugar Association “agreed to donate $350 000” toward a campaign “against food identify theft” to a non-profit group, Citizens for Health.

And in response, the HFCS producers funded an advertising campaign through the Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit group whose website stated its devotion to “promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices” and opposing “self anointed ‘food police,’ health campaigners . . . and meddling bureaucrats.”

A Corn Refiners Association employee wrote in an email, “As you know, our sponsorship of this campaign remains confidential . . . We are funding Berman & Co directly, not the Center for Consumer Freedom which is running the ads.”

She added, “If asked, please feel free to state the following: ‘The Corn Refiners Association is not funding the Center for Consumer Freedom. It is not surprising, however, that the food and beverage industry would want to defend this highly versatile ingredient that is highly prized and widely used in the food and beverage supply.’”

In its effort to rebrand HFCS, the Corn Refiners Association submitted a citizen’s petition to the US Food and Drug Administration in 2010, seeking authorization to use the term “corn sugar” as an alternative name to HFCS and arguing that the terms were equivalent in their relevance to consumers.

Although HFCS is perceived as being sweeter and having more calories than sugar, the corn industry argued that the term “corn sugar” would more accurately reflect the source of the food, its use as a sweetener, and its basic nature as a sugar.

The FDA denied the request, finding that the term “corn sugar” was already used to denote dextrose—a pure glucose product that is solid, dried, and crystallized—while HFCS is an aqueous solution of glucose and fructose.

The FDA said, “Moreover, ‘corn sugar’ has been known to be an allowed ingredient for individuals with hereditary fructose intolerance or fructose malabsorption, who have been advised to avoid ingredients that contain fructose. Because such individuals have associated ‘corn sugar’ to be an acceptable ingredient to their health when ‘high fructose corn syrup’ is not, changing the name for HFCS to ‘corn sugar’ could put these individuals at risk and pose a public health concern.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1688

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