Will "Corn Sugar" Sweeten Sales of HFCS? And Will a Soda Tax Sour Them?

The story hit the mainstream media a couple of weeks ago. The Corn Refiners' Association (CRA) asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to use the term "corn sugar," rather than the much maligned "high fructose corn syrup" (HFCS) on food labels.

Apparently, corn syrup manufacturers have decided their best weapon against declining corn syrup sales (an 11 percent drop from 2003 to 2008) is obfuscation. By coming up with an Orwellian name that rivals some of the best of the Bush administration (“Clean Skies,” “Healthy Forests,” and “Iraqi Freedom,” to name a few), the CRA hopes we food buyers are stupid enough to fall for this. Are we? I doubt it. I mean, we eventually figured out that a product that sounds like something we might pour on our pancakes is linked to the burgeoning obesity and diabetes epidemic that’s racking our nation. (Not to mention that most of the corn used to make it is genetically modified, but that’s a topic too big to include here.) I sincerely doubt that a semantic name game will confuse enough of us to boost sales of HFCS.

But the CRA’s market researchers must believe otherwise; they’re already using the term “corn sugar” in a TV ad that claims “sugar is sugar… your body can’t tell the difference.” Another ad claims that sugar of any kind is fine “in moderation.”

Yeah, except that HFCS is not, by any means, used in moderation. It's a food additive that's made with corn, which is financed by the government in the form of farm subsidies – as opposed to sugar, which is subject to costly trade tariffs because it's grown mostly outside the U.S. where climates are more consistently tropical. In fact, HFCS is so cheap that processed food manufacturers use it in almost everything to improve the taste and texture of their soups, sauces, salad dressings, breads, cereals, snack foods, ice creams, and of course, the most efficient transporter of HFCS into the human body, soft drinks.

In 2008, we drank more than 14 billion gallons of carbonated sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, ready-to-drink teas, and vitamin waters. That’s 17 ounces per day for every man, woman and child in America. (This, by the way, does not include the “diet” versions of these beverages, which cause problems of their own.)   

When you consider there are a significant number of Americans who don’t drink any soft drinks – like many of you SGT readers – the consumption rate for the people who do is astounding.

According to Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, many, if not all, of these people are already addicted to high fructose corn syrup (as well as to the caffeine that’s added to increase the soft drinks’ addictiveness – similar to why nicotine is added to cigarettes). Can we then assume that changing the name of their drug of choice to “corn sugar” will cause them to drink more? In other words, how realistic would it be to imagine that those who consume 30, 40, 50 or more ounces of cola per day would decide to increase their consumption upon hearing the news that “sugar is sugar.”

Highly unlikely.

We need to get a little more creative here, folks. And here’s what I’m suggesting:

Let's find a way to convince the FDA to respond to CRA’s request in this way:

Yes, my dear corn syrup lobbyist, you may, in perpetuity, name high fructose corn syrup anything you’d like, be it corn sugar, Sweet Surprise, smack, crack, even manna from heaven.

But in return for this generous concession, you must accept this sole condition, and it's called a...

Soda tax.

That's right. In exchange for allowing you to continue to manufacture and market this cheap, addictive sweetener that will cause this generation of American children to live shorter, unhealthier lives than those of their parents, and then give it an innocuous sounding name intended to trick people into accepting it as part of a healthful diet, the U.S. government will enact a federal excise tax on every soft drink sold in America that contains whatever it is you end up calling this evil concoction.

Deal? Deal.

The idea of a soda tax is not new. I first heard about it last year, during a segment on The Colbert Report. Last week, Mark Bittman spoke about it during his speech at the Healthy Food Summit at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Later that evening, I met a woman in the audience who was in the process of formulating a plan to take to Minnesota state representatives. The New England Journal of Medicine proposed a soda tax a year ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a web site devoted to this subject, even the champion of conservative corporatism Forbes magazine has written about it.

Here's the math: a tax of just a penny per ounce of soda (which is the amount most advocates are proposing) would raise $16 billion that could be used not only to disincentivize consumption, but to fund programs that promote healthful eating.

When you consider that the entire Federal School Lunch program costs just under $10 billion per year, and corn subsidies cost another $10 billion per year, you can see what a difference $16 billion can make to a nation’s eating habits.

So before you jump on the “Stop Corn Sugar Now” bandwagon, sit down, take a deep breath, and redirect your time and energy to something that will make a significant difference: a soda tax. Here’s how: 

  1. After the November election, find out the name of your state representative and schedule a meeting with him or her. Bring some friends. Then present a lucid argument for why you want him or her to support a state soda tax.

  2. Call or write to your U.S. congressional representative and senators and communicate the same message to them.

  3. Write to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, and tell her how you'd like her agency to respond to the CRA request to use "corn sugar" on packaging. Here's her address:
    U.S. Food and Drug Administration
    Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
    Outreach and Information Center
    5100 Paint Branch Parkway HFS-009
    College Park, MD 20740-3835
  4.  Read labels. Don’t buy anything with HFCS or corn syrup listed as an ingredient. Don't let your family and friends buy anything with it either.
  5.  Stay informed. Read. Educate yourself about food legislation. Then spread the word about why a soda tax is more worthy of your attention than a battle over semantics.



Shari Danielson is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was ana Sofia joanes Wants to Send This Clown Packing.