Corn and Sugar Duke It Out in Court This Week

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 04, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's a tough time for high fructose corn syrup. Once found in pretty much everything sweet, King Corn has fallen from his pedestal a bit since corn syrup was connected to everything from obesity to heart disease to honeybee die offs. It's gotten so bad that HFCS now wants to be known as "corn sugar." After all, sugar is sugar right?

Not according to the actual sugar industry. They've taken "Big Corn" to court, suing corn syrup giants for $2 billion in false advertising based on their claims that corn syrup was just as good as cane sugar.

King Corn Takes a Tumble

High fructose corn syrup and cane sugar have long battled over America's taste buds and bulging bellies. For awhile, corn had the edge, as highly processed corn syrup remained stable longer than cane sugar. That made it a favorite of processed foods like sodas, serials, and sauces.

HFCS use peaked in 1999 but then began to drop, as consumers became concerned that HFCS was connected to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. While there's "insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners," according to the Mayo Clinic, by 2010 many manufacturers were dropping HFCS from their products. Even some versions of Mountain Dew are made without corn syrup now. Mountain Dew.

Corn has been struggling to fight back against its bad reputation. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, it's now calling itself corn sugar. In a series of ads by the Corn Refiners Association, actors walk through mazes of corn and claim that "whether it's corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can't tell the difference. Sugar is sugar."

Cane sugar growers were not pleased.

Sugar Sues Corn

In response to the ads, Western Sugar, Michigan Sugar, and C&H Sugar sued the Corn Refiners Association and its supporters, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, in 2011. They allege that the corn refiners violated the federal Lanham Act and California's unfair competition laws. They argue that high fructose corn syrup is not legally sugar. Under FDA regulations, sugar must be solid, dry, and crystallized. The agency rejected the use of "corn sugar" as a name for HFCS this June. Similarly, sugar is molecularly difference from HCFS, so corn sugar is not the same as cane sugar when it comes to molecular structure and government regulation.

Corn countersued, arguing that cane sugar producers have misrepresented the health impacts of HFCS, saying it is as addictive as crack cocaine. Corn is seeking a relatively modest $530 million in damages

Now, cane sugar and corn syrup have gotten their day in court. A jury trial, which began this Tuesday, will feature a series of experts arguing over the nature of corn and cane sweeteners. The trial probably won't settle the scientific or health disputes between corn syrup and sugar, but it may impact how many industry ads you see in the future.

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