What the Heck Is Corn Sugar?

Will calling high-fructose corn syrup by another name make it more appealing?

Scan the store shelves and you’ll see labels on everything from sliced bread to juice boxes proclaiming: “Contains no High-Fructose Corn Syrup.” It’s no wonder a lot of Americans have a negative view of the sweetener. If so many companies are going out of their way to tell us they aren’t using something in their products, then it must be bad for us and our kids, right?

Actually, the jury is still out on that, but the perception has been a powerful one. Sales of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are reportedly at a 20-year low. In an effort to reverse the perception and the sales numbers, the trade group, the Corn Refiner’s Association (CRA), has now petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change its name from high-fructose corn syrup simply to “corn sugar” instead.

Why did HFCS get such a bad rap? HFCS has actually been in use since the 1970s. Its name was simply meant to distinguish it from regular glucose-containing syrup. The trade group argues that it’s roughly the equivalent of table sugar -- composed of about half glucose and half fructose--and metabolized by the body in the same way.

But many consumers -- including me -- aren’t convinced. In an NPD Group survey of food safety concerns, 58 percent of Americans said they were concerned that HFCS posed a health risk, putting it just behind mad cow disease, mercury in fish, trans fats, E. Coli and salmonella, as the top food safety fears.

Why? Although by no means definitive, some studies have linked this form of sugar with an increased risk of obesity. In one, Princeton University researchers found rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. Other researchers have also raised concerns that large amounts of HFCS can contribute to diabetes because the fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin production as other sugars do,

Still, it’s not just corn refiners who argue that there’s not much difference between HFCS and other sugars. Many nutrition experts say the health threat really doesn’t come from the kind of sugar we use, but the quantity of it we consume. In an interview with The New York Times, Michael Jacobson, who has a doctorate in microbiology and serves as executive director of the healthy advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the two “are nutritionally the same.”

If that’s the case, then calling HFCS “corn sugar” may actually have the effect the trade group intends, prompting consumers to focus more on the amount per serving, say, than the name of the sweetener.

But if consumers continue to link the new name with the old perception -- or food companies fear that they will -- then “No High-Fructose Corn Syrup” labels will likely just be replaced by “No Corn Sugar” labels. And people like me who stayed away from HFCS will be just as likely to keep them out of their shopping carts after the name change.

As the mother of two small kids, and someone whose battled the bulge most of my life, I’m willing to err on the side of caution, and pay an extra buck or two, to see the solitary word, “sugar” on an ingredient label. I’ve tried to shield my kids from “chemicals” and “processed foods” since day one, and in very basic terms, if they’re going to have something sweet I’d prefer it be the real stuff. And I’m not alone. My own father, 60 years old and aware of our family history of diabetes, would roll his eyes at my demands for organic milk. But he can tell you which brands of lemonade, cereal and Bloody Mary mix are HFCS-free.

I understand where the CRA is coming from. They want to continue making money on a product they believe to be completely safe. But playing a shell game with shoppers doesn’t make me trust their produce any more. In fact, it has the opposite result.

What about you? Would you be more likely to buy something with “corn sugar” than high-fructose corn syrup? Chime in below!

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