Is all sugar 'sugar'?

Last updated 12:09 16/12/2013

IT'S ALL IN A NAME: There's a legal battle happening right now ... over sugar.

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What's in a name? A whole lot, according to high profile members of the US sugar industry.

They're embroiled in a lawsuit against leading corn processors about whether or not the ubiquitous sweetener high-fructose corn syrup can be called "corn sugar."

The global market for sugar and other sweeteners in 2012 was nearly $NZ93.75 billion, according to analyst Shalini Shahani Dewan and BCC Research. Per person, Americans consumed about 20 kgs of high-fructose corn syrup last year and 30 kgs of refined sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup is derived from corn starch, which is essentially a chain of glucose (simple sugar) molecules, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. When broken down into the individual molecules, it becomes corn syrup. To convert it to high-fructose corn syrup, enzymes are added to change some of the glucose to another simple sugar, fructose - also called "fruit sugar" because it's found in fruit.

High-fructose corn syrup gets its name from being "high" in fructose compared to the pure glucose in corn syrup. The sweetener usually contains 42 or 55 percent fructose; the rest is glucose and water.

It's mainly used in processed foods, cereals, baked goods, soft drinks and other beverages. Sucrose is the most common form of sugar and what the FDA refers to as "sugar" on food labelling. It's both the crystals found in a tabletop sugar shaker and the industrial sweetener used in foods and beverages.

Sugar is made by extracting the tiny crystals from densely sweet sugarcane and sugar beets, which are roughly 7 to 22 percent sugar by weight, making them economically viable sources of the sweetener.

According to the FDA, sucrose is made up of the simple sugars glucose and fructose, joined in an exact 1-to-1 ratio. It comes in many forms and finds many uses: coarse grains used in baked goods, granulated and sprinkled on strawberries, powdered for confections, or browned by adding molasses and baked into cakes.

In April 2011, a group of leading sugar companies and a trade association filed a civil lawsuit against corn processors and a lobbying group in Los Angeles federal court. The sugar plaintiffs tie the rise in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup to skyrocketing obesity.

They cite studies suggesting that overconsumption of corn syrup in beverages plays a role in expanding waistlines, as well as research that highlights the differences between the two sweeteners.

They claim that consumers have been avoiding the corn sweetener due to research about its adverse health effects, and that the corn industry has responded with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar," including slogans such as "sugar is sugar" and "your body can't tell the difference."

The sugar industry calls this false and misleading advertising and contends that it harms consumers and the makers of real sugar. They're suing for lost profits and the end of the campaign. The corn refiners have countersued the sugar companies for deceiving customers into believing that processed sugar is safer and more healthful. They claim the sugar group "preys on consumers' fears" by alleging the health issues "while at the same time creating a health halo for processed sugar." The corn groups cite studies showing that high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are nutritionally equivalent. A pretrial conference is set for Nov. 17, 2014.

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- The Orange County Register


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