In the War Over High Fructose Corn Syrup, a High Profile Defector

Last Updated May 25, 2011 3:15 PM EDT

In its ongoing bid to change high fructose corn syrup's name to the more benign and baggage-free "corn sugar", the corn lobby has peppered its HFCS-boosting web site with more than half a dozen flattering quotes from the high profile nutrition guru Marion Nestle. It's a strategy that may have just backfired since Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, has come out against the name change, filing a comment with the FDA urging them to reject the Corn Refiners Association's petition.

In a recent blog post, Nestle unhappily notes her numerous mentions on SweetSurprise.com and quotes from her FDA comment:
The name change is not in the public interest. Its only purpose is to further the commercial interests of members of the Corn Refiners, and that is not one the FDA should be concerned about.
Nestle has never been a champion of HFCS, but the Corn Refiners' copious use of her comments about how HFCS isn't scientifically any worse than sugar certainly could make her seem that way. Under the headline "Experts on High Fructose Corn Syrup and Your Diet," they quote her from 2008:
HFCS is glucose and fructose separated. Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together, but quickly separated by digestive enzymes. The body can hardly tell them apart.
Elsewhere on the group's SweetSurprise web site, Nestle attacks a controversial 2010 Princeton study that suggests a link between HFCS and obesity:
So, I'm skeptical. I don't think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats. I'm afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one.
The Corn Refiners Association, which has mastered the art of letting no mildly supportive quote go unexploited, also highlights remarks from various other experts, like Michael Jacobson of CSPI and Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina.

Despite Nestle's considerable clout in food policy circles, her defection from ranks of HFCS semi-supporters isn't likely to dissuade the FDA from giving the corn lobby its the name change. The agency, which is currently accepting public comments on the issue, doesn't have an easy decision here since the 'corn sugar' petition pits two powerful food lobbies against each other -- Big Corn versus Big Sugar.

A little over a year ago, the FDA actually issued a letter to the CFA giving a thumbs up for HFCS to be called "corn syrup," only to rescind that approval three months later after an outcry from the Sugar Association. Call me cynical, but I think the question now comes down to which interest group wields more political clout. And on that question, the corn lobby wins because ultimately corn, in all its many forms, is a much bigger part of the food industry than sugar.

Image by Flickr user stirwise
  • Melanie Warner

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