There's a sweet battle brewing over a request by the Corn Refiners Association to change the name "high fructose corn syrup" (HFCS) on food and beverage nutrition labels to "corn sugar."

The request was made to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September and the conversation on both sides is becoming more strident.

The association says that the new term would better describe the ingredients. On its web site, SweetSurprise.com, the group says that HCFS is a bad name because high fructose corn syrup isn't high in fructose.

"In fact, the form of high fructose corn syrup found in many foods could fairly be said to be LOW in fructose…. The alternate name 'corn sugar' tells the consumers what this product is — a form of sugar made from corn," the group says,

It's a request that's meeting some strong opposition. On Thursday, the Consumers Union, which is the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, issued a press release announcing it had written the FDA to oppose the name change. They argued it would not only confuse consumers, but could mislead them.

"The change leads consumers to believe that corn sugar is naturally occurring, rather than a corn starch that must be chemically processed. The term 'corn sugar' does not reflect the chemical change that takes place in production and gives consumers the wrong impression that this product is 'natural.' Consumers looking to avoid HFCS should be able to easily differentiate among products that use HFCS, wrote Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for Consumers Union.

The National Consumers League joined the opposition, too. And it warned the FDA that it could be exposing itself to "future dilemma, depending on how scientific research and public perception continue to evolve.

"Regardless of where you stand on the debate over High Fructose Corn Syrup and its effects on our waistlines and our health, changing the name after decades of use is unfair to consumers,' said executive director Sally Greenberg.

She pointed out in a written statement that consumers are familiar with the fructose name and know where to find it on food nutrition labels. She said they "deserve consistency so they can continue to make purchasing decisions."

The FDA approved the name "High Fructose Corn Syrup" back in 1983. But consumption has been criticized in recent years as some claim it's a factor in obesity and diabetes, because it's a common ingredient in soda pop and processed foods.

Reports say that some consumers are avoiding it because of health implications. And some manufacturers of well-known foods and drinks have dropped the ingredient, including Hunt's ketchup, Snapple and Gatorade, according to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Some critics showed you do not have to take sides on the question of whether HFCS is harmful or not. They expressed fear that the name change would stifle research into how real — or make believe — perceived health concerns are.

"The FDA should not play spin doctor for the corn refining industry or shield food companies who use the ingredient from the impact of emerging scientific evidence or from consumer preferences. Just as it would be premature to conclude that HFCS is harmful to health, an official name change could frustrate further scientific study and confuse or irritate consumers," said Greenberg. "Should it turn out that HFCS does contribute to obesity or other adverse health outcomes, a regulatory decision allowing manufacturers to hide this ingredient from consumers could come back to haunt FDA.

There's also some controversy because a high-profile food writer said the Corn Refiners Association has misrepresented her viewpoint. Marion Nestle wrote that she's erroneously listed as a supporter of the name change and says that she is not.

"It is highly unlikely that public misunderstanding of nutritional biochemistry and the differential physiological effects of glucose vs. fructose will be addressed and corrected by changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar," she says.

Since the name change helps the corn association and not the public, she adds, the FDA should not allow the name change.

The Sugar Association's not wild about the proposed name change, either. Melanie Warner talks about that aspect of the sugary food fight between the Corn Refiner's Association and the Sugar Association on her blog on bnet.com.

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As for claims about HFCS being bad news for health, Jennifer K. Nelson on Mayo Clinic's Web site notes that it is the moss common added sweetener in processed food and beverages and that's why there are concerns about possible health effects.

"Research studies have yielded mixed results about the possible adverse effects of consuming high-fructose corn syrup," she said. "Although high-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), concerns have been raised because of how high-fructose corn syrup is processed. Some believe that your body reacts differently to high-fructose corn syrup than it does to other types of sugar. But research about high-fructose corn syrup is evolving.

"Some research studies have linked consumption of large amounts of any type of added sugar — not just high-fructose corn syrup — to such health problems as weight gain, dental cavities, poor nutrition, and increased triglyceride levels, which can boost your heart attack risk. But there is insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is less healthy than are other types of added sweeteners," she said.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

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