Things to know about the battle of the sweeteners

Author: The Associated Press
Published: Updated:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for both sides in a federal court case that’s shaping up as the battle of the sweeteners.

Yet behind all the legal bluster between sugar and high fructose corn syrup are two products that are similar in their chemical makeup and effect on the human body, experts say.

Here are a few things to know about the two saccharine substances as a trial begins Tuesday.



Sugar and high fructose corn syrup both contain glucose and fructose, just in slightly different proportions.

What’s commonly called “sugar” in everyday life is actually sucrose, a compound that’s 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Fructose is the most common sugar in fruit.

High fructose corn syrup is made up of the same two sugars. But as the name implies, one type of high fructose corn syrup has slightly more fructose than “sugar” — 55 percent — and the rest is glucose. The other type has 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose.



Sugar producers argue their product is more natural and that high fructose corn syrup is as addictive as crack cocaine. Corn refiners counter that sugar producers are just trying to make up for market lost starting in the 1970s, when the cheaper high fructose corn syrup came on the market.

Corn refiners lost a bid to change the name high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar” when the Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2012 that sugar was a solid, dried and crystallized food, not syrup. But the government has yet to take a stand on which sweetener, if either, is more nutritionally beneficial.

Roger Clemens, a University of Southern California research professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical science who has studied sugars, says the human body treats both the same and there is no appreciable difference between the two when it comes to caloric value or metabolic effect.

“They are equivalent forms of sugar,” he says. “It’s all about perception.”



Neutral experts in the debate between sugar and high fructose corn syrup say it all boils down to semantics and marketing.

Public opinion that once favored high fructose corn syrup has now tilted toward sugar.

Most recently, a third sweetener called agave has risen in popularity because it’s believed to be more natural — but the chemical make-up of the sap from the agave plant is “chemically and metabolically almost the same as high fructose corn syrup,” Clemens said.



The trial isn’t likely to end the debate or wipe away confusion about sweeteners.

Sugar listed on packaging goes by many names and all of them mean one thing: a sweet taste.

Maltose, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey or a variety of fruit juice concentrates are all ingredients that indicate sugar is in a food product.



Eat too much of any type of sugar, of course, and you’ll be in trouble.

High consumption of sugar, agave or high fructose corn syrup over time can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Some studies have shown that high fructose corn syrup causes fatty liver disease when fed to animals in experiments, but that’s when it accounts for 25 to 35 percent of the animal’s daily caloric intake — an amount a human would never consume, Clemens says.

“It goes back to the old mantra: balance, moderation and variety are the keys to healthy living,” he says.



Jurors in the case between sugar processors and corn manufacturers will take up one of nutrition’s most vexing debates and confront a choice common among some consumers: sugar or high fructose corn syrup?

The trial starting Tuesday in federal court grew out of efforts by the Corn Refiners Association to rebrand its high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar” to reverse damaging publicity that associated it with diabetes and obesity.

Its ad campaign featured a TV commercial with a father walking with his daughter across a cornfield and saying that he’s reassured by experts that high fructose corn syrup is the same as cane sugar.

“Your body can’t tell the difference,” he says. “Sugar is sugar.”

That didn’t go over well with the Western Sugar Cooperative and other sugar processors, who sued the corn refiners and Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. for false advertising. They are seeking as much as $2 billion.

Corn refiners and the two agribusiness giants countersued, charging the sugar industry with making false and misleading statements that included a comment that high fructose corn syrup is as addictive as crack cocaine. They are seeking $530 million.

Jurors will hear from experts on both sides of the debate, getting a mix of science and spin. They will also see damning internal documents that show what was happening behind closed doors.

Corn refiners will present evidence that the sugar industry was behind the pounding that high fructose corn syrup took in public opinion as sugar tried to regain market share it lost when food producers switched to the cheaper corn product that came on the market in the 1970s.

“We were just getting torpedoed in the press with all this junk science about high fructose corn syrup,” said attorney Neil Murphy, who represents corn refiners. “They were feeding the media.”

There were some high-profile defections as a result. Hunt’s ketchup, Capri Sun juices and Thomas English muffins dumped high fructose corn syrup for sugar.

The sugar producers will attempt to show that the corn refiners’ own advertising agency was uncomfortable creating something it felt was misleading.

“We’ve got the ad men saying that after they deal with their client, the corn refiners, they have to take a shower because they feel so dirty,” said attorney Mark Lanier, who represents sugar. “It tells you that this was not an ad agency gone amok. This was a client pushing an ad agency amok.”

One key document on the sugar side will be from a 1997 Mexican court case in which corn refiners said their product was distinct from sugar.

“Then 15 years later, ‘Sugar is sugar,'” Lanier said. “You can’t be more electrically charged opposites than those two positions taken by the one defendant in the case.”

Corn refiners say that was taken out of context, and they argue there’s no difference in the way the body metabolizes the two substances.

Science favors corn on that point, said Roger A. Clemens, a University of Southern California research professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical science who has studied sugars.

The two products are nearly identical and are metabolized the same, he said. Sugar is sucrose, which is half fructose, half glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.

Clemens, who knows players on both sides, said the case won’t solve the lingering disputes within science but will continue to stir controversy about the two products that have traded places in public popularity.

“In the 1970s, there was big push to take sucrose out of the diet and sucrose was getting expensive,” Clemens said. “Here we are 40 years later, and we’ve flipped all the way around. High fructose corn syrup now has a bad omen.”

Corn refiners ultimately lost their bid to change the name to “corn sugar” when the Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2012 that sugar was a solid, dried and crystallized food, not syrup.

There are no plans to revive that effort and, in fact, sugar itself has taken a lot of abuse in the court of public opinion.

Experts tend to agree on one thing: You shouldn’t eat too much of either sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

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