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Lawsuit over corn syrup headed to L.A. courtroom

March 20, 2012 |  7:49 am

They are the two bad boys of the American diet, linked to a variety of ailments including obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

But now sugar is taking high-fructose corn syrup to court in a landmark battle over which is the greater evil.

In a lawsuit that goes before a Los Angeles federal judge Wednesday, sugar producers accuse their corn industry rivals of false advertising in a campaign that casts the liquid sweetener as "nutritionally the same as table sugar" and claims "your body can't tell the difference."

Sugar forces argue that high-fructose corn syrup is far less healthy than their product and are demanding the ads run by the Corn Refiners Assn. be halted and that the corn association pay unspecified monetary damages.

The corn industry promoters "characterize high-fructose corn syrup as a natural product. It is not -- it is man-made," said Adam Fox, an attorney for the sugar industry plaintiffs, led by Western Sugar Corp. "Yet they are advertising it as identical to sugar cane and sugar beets."

The lawsuit is likely to bring more scrutiny to high-fructose corn syrup as its producers are trying to improve the sweetener's image. The association representing corn growers, processors and distributors -- including farm belt giants Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. -- has applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to officially change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar" for labeling purposes.

Concern about the health effects of the corn-based product began escalating about a decade ago, when the U.S. surgeon general first expressed alarm over the rapid and ubiquitous spread of the sweetener in processed foods.

But more recently, the debate has unfolded in popular culture. In a "Saturday Night Live" skit last spring, actresses Kristen Wiig and Nasim Pedrad played mothers arguing over the sweet red drink being served at a children's birthday party. Pedrad's character defends high-fructose corn syrup, and her argument seems to be winning until her grossly overweight daughter -- played by Bobby Moynihan -- emerges from the background. "Parks and Recreation" and "The Simpsons" have also spoofed the sweetener dispute.

In court papers, the sugar industry says the nation's soaring rise in obesity and diabetes has dovetailed with the penetration of the synthesized corn sweetener in soft drinks, condiments, bread, cookies, jam and syrups.

The corn forces respond that there is nothing dishonest about their advertising and that they will prove it in court.

"It is wrong for the refined sugar industry to try to stifle this truthful speech," said Dan K. Webb, lead attorney for the corn refiners.

The defendants, he said, plan to present nationwide survey results suggesting that consumers think high-fructose corn syrup is higher in fructose and calories than table sugar, which he says it is not.

"Good science proves that obesity is caused by the over-consumption of calories from any source, not from one ingredient," Webb said. "USDA data shows that consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has actually been in decline, while obesity rates are rising. It is just wrong for the plaintiffs to claim that high-fructose corn syrup is uniquely responsible for obesity."

Americans consumed an average of 47 pounds of sugar per person in 2010, plus 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup -- more than three times the per-capita sweetener intake elsewhere in the world, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means the average American consumes 888 calories per day from sweeteners, according to the USDA.

Medical research on the metabolic effects of consuming sugar versus high-fructose corn syrup has been limited but consistent in indicating heightened risks from the liquid sweetener, said Michael I. Goran, director of the Child Obesity Research Center at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

"There's definitely a difference in metabolic fate and outcome of fructose ingestion relative to glucose," Goran said, noting that high-fructose corn syrup contains more of the former ingredient, as its name implies. "So the more you tip the scale toward fructose, the more those negative effects kick in."

Table sugar made from cane or beets is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, and the molecules are bonded in a way that slows the body's absorption of the fructose, Goran said.

By contrast, high-fructose corn syrup is typically 55% fructose -- and some formulas contain as much as 90% -- elevating blood sugar levels more swiftly.

"It's not just about the calories," said Goran, citing the liquid sweetener's broad use in food production because it is cheaper to make than sugar, helps stabilize foods, allows for better browning of baked goods and provides a more concentrated sweetness than the same amount of sugar.

Corn industry representatives contend that any confusion about high-fructose corn syrup stems from its name and would be resolved by changing it to "corn sugar."

It's not just Big Sugar, however, that opposes high-fructose corn syrup's efforts to rebrand itself.

"If sugar wanted to change its name to 'highly nutritious vitamins,' we would oppose that too," said James S. Turner, a Washington attorney who heads Citizens for Health, which has taken sugar's side in the legal battle.

Turner said he and his group "are not arguing against high-fructose corn syrup, we are arguing that the public understands that it and sugar are different things and to try to cloud that over is a mistake. All we want is for the public to be able to distinguish a product they don't want to buy."

An FDA spokeswoman, Tamara N. Ward, said the corn industry's September 2010 petition for the name change "is still pending before the agency and we are actively working on it."

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-- Carol J. Williams

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