A coalition of U.S. beet and cane sugar producers are suing member companies of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA). Their amended complaint claims that the CRA is involved in a “conspiracy to deceive the public” by advertising High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as “corn sugar”. Sugar farmers say HFCS manufacturers have spent over $50 million on misleading ads. Other defendants named in the suit include Corn Products International, Roquette America and Tate & Lyle Ingredients America.

In October, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that sugar growers had “a reasonable probability of success” in disproving key claims made by a massive CRA re-branding campaign that claims HFCS is equivalent to sugar derived from beet or cane plants. Sugar growers also took issue with the CRA’s use of the term “natural” to describe HFCS.

Just last week, plaintiffs amended their complaint to allege that senior execs of agribusiness giants Archer-Daniels-Midland, Cargill and others organized collectively “in order to dominate and control” the CRA’s ongoing marketing efforts. According to the amended complaint, corporate members of the CRA, under the guise of the CRA, provided “the funding that has been required to orchestrate and maintain this significant, broad-based, national media, multi-million dollar advertising campaign.”

“Let’s be clear about what is at stake here. This litigation is about false advertising funded by CRA’s biggest members,” said Adam Fox, lead attorney for the sugar producers. “Sugar cane and beet farmers want the defendants to stop their false and misleading statements that harm consumers, harm the makers of real sugar and harm any dialogue based on the truth. This lawsuit seeks to put an end to the intentional deception.”

The CRA asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow HFCS to be called “corn sugar” on food and beverage labels last Fall. The worry for sugar farmers is that labeling HFCS as “corn sugar” would confuse consumers who are increasingly trying to avoid the ingredient for various health concerns. The irony here is that the processed food and beverage industry’s push to include more “genuine” sugars in their products as a healthier alternative to HFCS is not actually based on available scientific research. Rather, it has been itself the product of a marketing campaign aimed at satisfying growing consumer demand for a synthetic-free food supply.

But surprisingly, the case might not hinge on an argument over the slight difference in structure between sugar and HFCS molecules. The real dilemma for the CRA is that “corn sugar” has been commonly used for several decades as the FDA-approved name for dextrose, a type of corn starch that lacks fructose. Redefining an ingredient further distorts informed consumer consent, say sugar growers.

Robert Lustig, the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders, draws little distinction between sucrose (table sugar) and HFCS. In a May 2009 speech, he referred to HFCS as “the most demonized additive known to man.” This brand-assassination might be clouding the real issue he says. His conclusions come down hard on the refined sugar industry as a whole.

“High-fructose corn syrup, sugar — no difference,” Lustig said at a lecture in San Francisco last December. “The point is they’re each bad — equally bad, equally poisonous.”

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