06/01/2012 06:21 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

It's National Donut Day but Otherwise a Bad Week for Sweet Things

Sweet dreams for America's once-sweetheart sweeteners aren't made of these kinds of moves.

How Opinions on Sugar and Corn Syrup Went Sour

Americans have traditionally loved sweet things. Think about it. You can't get any more American than a sweet slice of apple pie. And we sure love our doughnuts. And then there are the songs, like the little gem from 1969 that goes: "Sugar, sugar, ahh, honey, honey ... you got me wanting you."

Sugar and honey, sure that's sweet stuff. But one of America's most popular sweeteners is high fructose corn syrup. How did that happen?

High Fructose Corn Syrup's Rise to Eminence

It's all about economics. In the space of one year, between 1973 and 1974, sugar prices jumped from 9 cents a pound to almost 60 cents per pound. Food producers figured there's got to be a cheaper way to make things sweet so they started searching for alternatives. And surprise, surprise, the winner in the competition for America's sweetener of choice was none other than America's number one feed grain (and one of our most heavily subsidized crops): corn. Well, not exactly corn but corn sweeteners (i.e., sugars derived from corn). And in particular high fructose corn syrup (a k a HFCS). In the 1980s HFCS became all the rage, the "low cost substitute for sugar" of choice in the American diet.

Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not, but in the decades that have followed, U.S. obesity rates have soared, more than doubling among all Americans since 1970 and nearly tripling among children since 1980. At the same time, between 1970 and 1990,  U.S. consumption of high fructose corn syrup rose a whopping 1,000 percent. And so there's been a bit of a backlash against sweeteners in general and high fructose corn syrup in particular and this week they were dealt a bit of a blow.

High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Corn Sugar

In September 2010, the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the producers of high fructose corn syrup, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to change the name of "high fructose corn syrup." Their proposed new name: corn sugar.

Why the change? According to the trade association, it's all about transparency. The sweet stuff in HFCS is technically sugar, and, the trade group argued, consumers "need to know what is in their foods." So the logical name is corn sugar.

Sounds reasonable, but I imagine there are some cynics out there who see another motivation for the change besides trying to inform the poor consumers about the true nature of high fructose corn syrup. The fact is that Americans of late have been losing their sweet tooth for HFCS. The consumer research group NPD reports that a recent survey of Americans found 58 percent were wary of HFCS. And the Wall Street Journal reports that "over the past decade ... consumption of corn-derived sweeteners sank at a much faster rate -- 20% -- than did refined sugar, which dropped 3%."

So on which side of the divide did the FDA land? On the side of the cynics. On May 30, 2012, the FDA responded to the trade group's petition with a no can do, citing a lack of "sufficient grounds" for the name change.

Michael M. Landa, the FDA's director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, offered up chemistry as a further explanation of the decision in a letter to Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association: "FDA's regulatory approach for the nomenclature of sugar and syrups is that sugar is a solid, dried, and crystallized food; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food." Since HFCS is a syrup, calling it a "corn sugar" would "suggest that HFCS is a solid, dried, and crystallized sweetener obtained from corn" when it is not, and thus "not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties."

The folks at the Corn Refiners Association may be crying foul about all this, but I can just hear the cynics' response: "Sweet."

NYC's Latest Salvo in Its War on Obesity

If his policies (both those wished for and enacted) are any indication, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants thinner New Yorkers. His attempts to combat obesity have led to his own renaming -- the derisive "Nanny Bloomberg." His latest move is to limit the size of sweetened soft drinks to 16-ounce containers.

Whether the move is a good one or a bad one is a matter of opinion. It's tough to find the mayor's press release on the move to limit container sizes on the site, but it's very easy to find a list of leaders and shakers supporting the measure, a list topped with names like Clinton and Koch.

Should this go through and you're a 32-ouncer, don't fret. Just point to the 16 ouncers and buy two, they're small enough. Like I said, sweet.

Crossposted with The Green Grok |