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'Sugar is sugar' - or is it?

Dear Answer Man, we're being bombarded on TV with commercials from farm industry groups that insist that high-fructose corn syrup i s the same thing as cane sugar and has no different health benefits or impacts. "Sugar is sugar," the friendly looking, healthy people on TV say. Is that true? I thought there were issues with corn-based sugar. — Farm Girl

Sweet! I've been meaning to check this out myself, and thanks to Farm Girl, I'm now motivated to do so.

Those commercials are paid for by the Corn Refiners Association , a Washington-based trade group composed of seven "member companies," some of whose names you'll recognize: Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill, Corn Products International Inc., National Starch, Penford Products Co., Roquette America, and Tate & Lyle Americas. Their mission is to promote refined corn products, going well beyond high-fructose corn syrup.

If you have any doubt about the high profile of the Corn Refiners Association, note their web address: Corn.org.

The TV commercials are part of the "air war" to soften up the federal Food and Drug Administration to allow corn syrup to be rebranded as "corn sugar." For your information, high-fructose corn syrup was only approved by FDA for use as a sweetener in 1983 — not long ago, in the grand scheme of things. It was reaffirmed by FDA in 1996, but in the years since, the product has taken a public-relations beating as a less-desirable, less high-quality type of sugar product.


Thus, the corn industry's wish to reposition it in the market as identical to sugar.

Fair enough. It's a free country, though obviously corporations and lobbyists are freer than the rest of us because they have more money. But is it true that "sugar is sugar" — is there no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and cane sugar products?

From a legal standpoint, that remains to be seen. Sugar farmers and refiners say there are plenty of differences and they're suing to stop the ads. The cane sugar industry has a huge financial interest in how the debate over corn syrup plays out, plus there are complex political calculations, also including government subsidies to farmers.

What do scientists and dietitians say? The American Medical Association says there's not enough research to call for restricting consumption of high-fructose corn syrup. As always, there are plenty of other experts with opinions. Some say the use of high-fructose corn syrup in pop and other products is a contributing factor to childhood obesity. Others say that products with high levels of fructose "can be stored in the liver as fat and trigger gout and hypertension problems," according to an Associated Press report.

The corn industry "has done a very good job trying to convince people it's sugar from corn," says the director of the Childhood Obesity Center at the University of Southern California. "It's not … it's manufactured from corn by a high industrialized process."

Then there's the taste. Do products taste better with cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? Most foodies, in my humble opinion, would say it's not even close — cane sugar tastes better. At minimum, they would disagree that "sugar is sugar."

The best advice overall regarding sugar is to curb your consumption of whatever sugar you prefer. Instead, make some popcorn (hold the butter) and just watch the debate over sugar unfold.

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