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Sweet surrender?

The makers of high-fructose corn syrup would understandably like to change the image of their product, which has gained a reputation as the trans fat of the sugar world. In fact, as sales sink, they’d prefer a name change altogether — to corn sugar — and have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to use it on food labels.

The liquid sweetener is a natural food, a Corn Refiners Assn. advertising campaign claims, and nutritionally the same as any other sugar. The makers of table sugar — the granulated or powdered substance made from beets and sugar cane — will be in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Tuesday in an effort to stifle that campaign, but they’re making too much of minor differences.

True, high-fructose corn syrup requires more processing than the familiar table sugar, using enzymes to derive the sugar from corn starch, but both undergo some processing. More important, when it comes to how the human body metabolizes glucose, fructose, sucrose and the like, dietitians say the corn refiners have it mostly right: Sugar is sugar. It’s a source of empty calories; one isn’t more healthful than another, and Americans consume too much of it, period.

In fact, a decade ago, most people thought high-fructose corn syrup was a better choice, because fructose is also derived from fruit. But the sugar found in fruit juices has not been found to be more healthful than that found in a sugar bowl or in soda. Some research has been performed on whether high-fructose corn syrup is more likely to result in obesity, but the results have not been conclusive.

The main problem with high-fructose corn syrup isn’t in the manufacturing process or its nutritional value, but in its price. It’s a cheap sweetener, which is why consumers can buy 2 liters of soda for less money than an equivalent amount of apple juice. That low price has helped feed a national trend toward obesity.

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The table-sugar companies also decry the effort to rename the corn product as corn sugar, saying that when consumers think of sugar, they have in mind only sucrose. But the growers of cane and beets do not have a monopoly on the word sugar, and corn sugar is probably a more understandable term. Consumers who dislike the product should quickly learn that high-fructose corn syrup by any other name is just as nutritionally bankrupt.


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