FDA official questions ‘corn syrup, sugar’ rebranding

LOS ANGELES — A recent attempt by the corn industry to change the name of a widely used but increasingly controversial sweetener was misleading and could have robbed consumers of important information, a top official at the Food and Drug Administration said in documents obtained by The Associa

ted Press.

The comments came last year as the Corn Refiners Association sought clarity over whether it could change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just “corn syrup.” That informal request was subsequently withdrawn and in September 2010, the group filed a formal petition seeking a more radical name change: “corn sugar.”

The corn industry is attempting an image makeover for high fructose corn syrup after some scientists linked it to obesity and other health problems and some food companies started touting products that did not contain the ingredient. High fructose corn syrup is present in most sodas and a staggering array of processed foods.

In response to the Corn Refiners Association’s request to use the term “corn syrup,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told colleagues he was uncomfortable with changing the name and suggested that allowing it would deprive consumers of important information and 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.”

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.”

“The conversation you have is in a different context and does not, or will not, affect the outcome of the petition itself,” Karas said.

In his email, Taylor also expresses frustration that the corn industry had asked informally to change the name of high fructose corn syrup and he worried about the agency’s credibility if it rubber stamped the request.

Corn Refiners Association spokeswoman Audrae Erickson said she had not seen Taylor’s statements so could not comment on them.

In an emailed statement, she said the inquiry about whether the term “corn syrup” could be used “speaks for itself, was provided for agency consideration and comment, and carried no misleading element whatsoever.”

The corn industry filed its name-change petition with the FDA in September 2010 and a decision could be another year away. The public has been invited to submit comments about the proposal.

Erickson said the corn industry wanted to change the name of high fructose corn syrup because a survey found that consumers better understand what is in the substance when the term “corn sugar” is used to describe it.

Dr. David Kessler, who served as FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997, said he had not seen Taylor’s email firsthand but said it indicated the corn industry may hit hurdles as it tries to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.”

“Whatever you call it, it should have little place in the American diet,” Kessler said. “It certainly sounds like the FDA clearly signaled the industry that this is not a wise thing to do.”

Even though the term “corn sugar” has not been approved, the corn industry has started using it in a series of high-profile television, online and print advertisements telling consumers that “sugar is sugar” and that corn sugar is natural and safe, provided it’s consumed in moderation.

The sugar industry has filed a lawsuit over the claims, 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.

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