The Checkout

Bitter Words Over a Sweet Ingredient

High fructose corn syrup--that's quite a high falutin name for something that's basically just a sweetener in sodas and lots of other food.

And now the question is, is it "natural?"

7Up says it is. It just launched a new advertising campaign, saying there's a whole new reason to drink the Uncola: It's 100 percent natural."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest disagrees. The advocacy group, which has fought for tighter food labeling requirements, reduced fat and sodium in processed foods and unveiled the high caloric count of movie popcorn and Chinese food, says that as long as 7UP contains high fructose corn syrup, the company cannot claim it's 100 percent natural.

CSPI sent Cadbury Schweppes, the maker of 7Up, a letter today saying it would sue the company, accusing it of spreading an "untruth" unless the company dropped its 100 percent natural claim. CSPI says high fructose corn syrup is no better-- or worse--than plain table sugar. But it is made in a complex, multistep industrial process.

"Pretending that soda made with high fructose corn syrup is 'all natural,' is just plain old deception," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "High fructose corn syrup isn't something you could cook up from a bushel of corn in your kitchen, unless you happen to be equipped with centrifuges, hydroclones, ion-exchange columns, and buckets of enzymes."

CSPI says the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an official standard for the use of the word "natural," allowing it to be used as labels for meat and poultry products that are minimally process. But the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees processed food, has no such standard, CSPI says. In March the Sugar Association, which represents cane and beet sugar producers, asked the FDA to define "natural." In a rare moment of agreement with sugar producers, the CSPI is backing the association's request.

"While this particular mislabeling doesn't present much of a health threat, consumers and honest companies shouldn't have to put up with dishonest claims in the marketplace," said Steve Gardner, CSPI litigation director.

Cadbury Schweppes has not yet returned my phone calls to comment on the lawsuit.

Your thoughts?

By  |  May 11, 2006; 12:43 PM ET Legal Battles/Settlements
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Comments

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Sounds like they should claim to be a supernatural sweetner. Yes, just depends upon what you mean by "is" (isis?). Can anyone really imagine that the government can define what "natural" is, or that we'd be so tame as to care?

Posted by: isis | May 11, 2006 1:17 PM

Go for it! I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup for the very reason stated-- it takes a multi step process and is very industrial-- the antithesis of natural food... it starts from corn, but what it ends up as is something altogether different... that isn't natural! Please-- I look for natural labels-- keep it honest!

Posted by: lcd | May 11, 2006 1:25 PM

Everyone knows corn syrup isn't natural...why the uproar from the processed food industry? It's processed food, isn't it?

Posted by: jsmith | May 11, 2006 1:33 PM


Litigation Director says "While this particular mislabeling doesn't present much of a health threat..."

Why doesn't he prioritize and instead focus on deceptions that do constitute a health threat?

Isn't that his job? To prioritize the health threats?

What -- it's not enough that he allowed CSPI to put its imprimatur on diet soda in our public schools?

Posted by: Ross Getman | May 11, 2006 1:38 PM

The statement that high fructose corn syrup is natural is just plain wrong and yes, it can be dangerous. I have a child who is allergic to corn syrup and have grown to rely on organic and "natural" products which seldom resort to any type of corn syrup as a sweetener. While I still read all labels, I would really hate to see this sort of ingredient become common place in the natural foods I buy as a refuge from the highly processed "food-like" products too common on the grocery store shelf.

Posted by: jeckel | May 11, 2006 1:44 PM

Sugar is also made through processes from sugar cane or beet root. Why is sugar considered natural?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 11, 2006 1:51 PM

Guess what? Everything's natural. It all comes from the same set of atoms. This 'natural' vs 'artificial' debate is more arcane and useless than Plato's 'pure forms' nonsense.
Humans are technological animals. Deal with it.

Posted by: John | May 11, 2006 1:52 PM

HFCS is about as natural as Wal-Mart is concerned about the welfare of their customers. Personally, I try to avoid both for the same reason - my health and well-being.

Posted by: Adam in SC | May 11, 2006 1:53 PM

I'm glad CSPI is doing something about this. When I heard the new 7-UP ad my first thought was - "OH? They're using sugar?!!" Of course, I wouldn't have bought some without reading the label first because I'm allergic to corn.

Posted by: mstroff | May 11, 2006 1:55 PM

Center for Science in the Public Interest is a fanatically vegan and anti-technology group. I do not trust what they say at any time.

CSPI seems bent on dictating to people what they can and cannot eat. I resent their nannying and will eat what I want when I want. Will I die earlier due to poor choices, yep. That's my decision.

I read the labels on food and don't eat the food that has ingredients I don't want to eat. Simple.

This latest furor is just another fund-raising publicity stunt and attempt by CSPI to get money and keep trying to dictate to the USDA what they can put on labels so as to scare people into following the CSPI dogma.

Posted by: John | May 11, 2006 2:04 PM

"But the Food and Drug Administration, which overseas processed food, has no such standard"

Okay, I know you meant "oversees" and you know you meant "oversees" and hopefully most people reading it know you meant "oversees," but why isn't there just a simple little link somewhere on washingtonpost.com where a reader could report something like that for it to be fixed? Likewise the occasional link that's not working, the story that doesn't have a link at all, etc. Why not put the site's readers to work for you? (Not Carolyn specifically, this is really a question for the .com site generally)

Posted by: Typo Assist? | May 11, 2006 2:05 PM

There have been numerous stories lately about how our bodies do not process and register HFCS in the same way as other sugars, in fact leading to health impacts (body doesn't "recognize" the calories and therefore we end up eating more total calories).

I thought the same thing when I saw the ad, "great, no HFCS!" Boy, was I wrong. Would have read the label anyway but definitely a misleading ad.

Posted by: Hmm | May 11, 2006 2:14 PM

"While this particular mislabeling doesn't present much of a health threat..."

HFCS is AWFUL for the body. Aside from the facts that our body doesn't recognize the calories from them, but stores them anyway...HFCS also blocks the Insulin Receptors from working correctly, and increases the risk of Diabetes.

If you want to see the culprit of the Obesity and Diabetes Outbreaks in the US....Look at HFCS

Posted by: Joe | May 11, 2006 2:27 PM

Finally high fructose corn syrup is getting the American consumers attention. Corn syrup is natural high fructose corn syrup is not. It is corn syrup that has been chemically modified to be higher in fructose than sucrose. As a result, it is sweeter than regular sugar. American food processors love it because they can use less of it than regular sugar and profit from it. However, it is not metabolized in the same manner as regular sugar and does not "turn off" the sweet receptors in our brain. As a result, people eat more and never get the "sugar satisfaction". I read were Americans are now consuming more high fructose corn syrup than regular sugar. No wonder we are the fattest nation in the world and growing. Only in America!

Posted by: David F. Franciosi | May 11, 2006 2:48 PM

Anyone see the Boston Legal last week where they decided to sue high fructose corn syrup?

Posted by: AK | May 11, 2006 2:53 PM

As much as I dislike CSPI and their alarmist press releases ("Mexican Food - Delicious but Deadly!") they're right on this one. HFCS isn't "natural" as commonly defined/understood.

Besides, real sugar beverages taste better.

Posted by: Mojotron3000 | May 11, 2006 2:58 PM

I'm a bit stunned by John's comment that "Center for Science in the Public Interest is a fanatically vegan and anti-technology group."

As a subscriber to CSPI's Nutrition Action Healthletter, I can definitely say they're not a vegan group. They routinely give recipes including chicken, fish, dairy, etc. They've even reviewed the most healthful grocery stores options choices in ice cream, cheese, etc. Clearly anyone who claimed CSPI is a vegan group has never looked into CSPI.

Anti-technology?? Doubtful -- they really aren't an organization related in any way to issues of being pro/con on technology. Maybe you think being anti-processed-food is anti-technology, but that's hardly the case.

Posted by: Maya | May 11, 2006 3:07 PM

"Besides, real sugar beverages taste better."

I think aspertame beverages taste better. :)

Ok, my wife tries to prevent HFCS in our house. Mabye we're healthier for it - maybe we're not. But she's happy - so I'm happy.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 11, 2006 3:16 PM

HFCS is natural in the sense that it is made from natural ingredients. Nutrasweet....not as natural, but still sorta made from natural stuff. Really, 7UP is correct in saying their product is 'all natural' but 'all natural' dosen't automatically mean 'all okey doke for your body'. Puffer fish are also 'all natural' but that dosen't make them always good for you.

We just need to learn that soda and fast food are only meant for occasional ingestion. Two or three sodas a week or the occasional McBurger isn't going to kill you or give you diabetes overnight diabetes if it is balanced with whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Let's try to practice moderation and common sense.

Oh, and does anyone know about Disney no longer sponsoring McDonald's Happy Meal toys? Just something mentioned to me the other day and I'm curious to know if it's true. Good step for Disney but at the same time, the once in a while Happy Meal, especially with the new carrot and milk substitutes, isn't going to lead to obesity or diabetes on it own.

Posted by: Duke | May 11, 2006 3:34 PM

I grew up eating chilled White House brand canned applesauce. It was so clean tasting that I remembered that taste into my thirties. For some reason, I didn't buy it for years, and then, when I became a mom a few years ago, I bought some for the babies; it tasted muddy, not crisp like an apple. It was made with corn syrup, but I didn't know that was supposed to make a difference. Sounded natural: corn, syrup. I figured that the flavor had mutated in my memory.

But a couple of years ago, I tried Graves Mountain applesauce, made in nearby Syria, Virginia. Hey, there was that same flavor from my youth. I looked at the back of the jar: apples, sugar, water. And then I remembered reading the back of the White House can when I was a kid: apples, sugar, water.

Needless to say, now we buy Graves and any other product made with sugar over corn syrup.

Posted by: Margaret Overstreet | May 11, 2006 3:35 PM

To Margaret Overstreet:

Why not buy the apple sauce which states the ingredients are: apples, water.

Why buy the sugar???????? Better than HFCS but the sugar isn't needed. Tastes more like real apples when all you have is real apples.

Posted by: Why sugar | May 11, 2006 3:52 PM

Is corn syrup a yucky substitute for sugar in many cases? Sure. Is it less natural that refined sugar? No. In fact, if I understand the process by which it is made, corn syrup is neither more or less natural than most whiskeys, except that the vats are a lot bigger.

There is nothing that says that the label "natural" should be synonymous with "tastes good" or "makes us think of childhood." Asparagus is natural and it definitely does not make me think of childhood (though I do like it now).

This is one of the reasons that I stopped being CSPI member years ago despite the good work they did and continue to do. They sometimes forget their science and go after a product simply because they don't like it.

Posted by: Oscar | May 11, 2006 4:14 PM

CSPI is a "vegan, anti-technology" institution...so what if it is?

Just as we have institutions that are hell bent on promoting the processed food industry, why shouldn't we have an institution that is anti-processed food?

Processed foods and HCFS are responsible for more illness than most Americans can comprehend. It is imperative that the truth about HCFS is given to the public at large.

Posted by: jsmith | May 11, 2006 4:16 PM

I disagree with CSPI's claim that HFCS is no worse than plain table sugar. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_fructose_corn_syrup :

"ructose produces lower levels of the hormones leptin and insulin than glucose. Raising leptin and insulin levels trigger the feeling of "fullness" while eating. The level of the hormone ghrelin remains higher with consumption of fructose than it does with glucose. Ghrelin appears to control the feeling of "hunger". This double change in normal production of these hormones results in a slower decrease in appetite and a tendency to consume more than if glucose were to be used. Thus more is consumed to get the same "full" and "satiated" feeling and the total caloric intake is greater. Additionally, the level of blood triglycerides shows a rapid and prolonged elevation after consuming fructose as opposed to glucose. JCEM 2/24/2004
The delayed decrease of the hormone ghrelin has been shown in obese subjects but not in normal weight subjects. This means that chronic consumption of fructose may actually be preconditioning the metabolism of a normal weight individual to behave like an obese individual's metabolism. JCEM 11/2/2004
High triglyceride levels are believed to be linked to clogging of the arteries and may increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. They may even be more important for determining the risk of heart disease than cholesterol."

Posted by: Scott K | May 11, 2006 4:18 PM

At least CSPI and 7Up are waring over real issues like natural vs. unnateral instead of petty squabbles like HIV, cancer, and pollution-induced deformities. It's about time we deal with the REAL issues.

Posted by: holy moses | May 11, 2006 4:26 PM

What I want to know is why corn syrup is an ingredient in just about every food product. I've heard that to boost revenue to farmers, the government actually pays food companies to add corn syrup to their recipies--even if it's not necessary. Is this true? Why not just give aid to the farmers, and not fill our foods with unecessary ingredients?

There are a lot of people that believe corn syrup does present a risk over time, and point to the rising rates of diabetes as evidence. I think this is a plausible connection.

Posted by: Sean | May 11, 2006 4:27 PM

Ah...images of wonderful Archer Daniels Midland pass through my mind...images of soy bean and corn crops...claims of how ADM does this or that for the world's population...

When Bill Clinton reported last week how he put a dent into the fructose/sodas in schools volume, I din't see that as impacting the soft drink manufacturers as much as the companies producing corn sweeteners.

Posted by: Silence DoGood | May 11, 2006 4:35 PM

Typo Assist

A Speling Chequer would help.

Posted by: Lurker | May 11, 2006 4:41 PM

I dunno about the medical issues. But it seems that this is in part a question about whether this is an unfair business practice. HFCS is much cheaper than sugar and that's why it is so widely used. If consumers buy an "all-natural" product in the belief that it is different from and superior to similar products sold at similar prices that are not so labeled, the consumers are misled and the makers of the other products are placed at a competitive disadvantage. And if everybody is free to call everything "natural" than the word has no more meaning than "refreshing" or "tasty." If an ingredient like HFCS is "natural" under the current rules, what ingredients could be excluded?

Posted by: Bob | May 11, 2006 5:01 PM

People are afraid of fructose because they don't understand it. Remember, everything is chemical!!! just cuz it's found in nature has NOTHING to do with the safety of a chemical compound. The "all natural" designation is really meaningless!


Corn contains starch, which are sugar monomers linked in a chain. When the seed want to grow, enzymes (amylases) in the seed break the starch into more simple sugars, especially glucose, that the plant can use for fuel to grow. Fructose is made with a glucose isomerase - a naturally occuring enzyme - changes the structure slightly. Fructose tastes sweeter, ounce for ounce, than glucose. For this reason, it makes a good sweetner, and you add far less sugar (fructose instead of glucose) to get the same sweet taste. What's the big deal?

Posted by: sweet tim | May 11, 2006 5:10 PM

"At least CSPI and 7Up are waring over real issues like natural vs. unnateral instead of petty squabbles like HIV, cancer, and pollution-induced deformities. It's about time we deal with the REAL issues."

If you think these issues are so all-consuming that nothing else matters--why are YOU on this board? Go out and deal with the "real" issues. Go on! Shoo!

"CSPI seems bent on dictating to people what they can and cannot eat. I resent their nannying and will eat what I want when I want."

I've never gotten that impression. They're not trying to ban the foods--they just want the consumer to be informed, to know exactly what they're putting in their mouth. I used to love movie popcorn but I can't remember the last time I ate it, because of their revelations. The calories and fat grams weren't worth it to me. On the other hand, for me, Mexican and Chinese food *is* worth it. So I'm making an informed choice--exactly CSPI's aim.

Posted by: NYC | May 11, 2006 5:18 PM

Many of the people who have commented fail on one point: What does "natural" and healthy have to do with each other? Nothing in many cases and in some cases it does. If I eat a block of sugar (unprocesses) that's natural right? is it healthy? absolutely not. People in this country squabble about little things about "natural" but then they go to McDonalds and buy a big mac. Come on. Quit worrying about whether something is natural and notice that you are putting way too many calories in your mouth. Once you get your diet on track and healthy then worry about "natural" and "organic". You will still die an early death if you eat a lot of calories from an all organic or natural diet if you are overweight. Give me a break!

Posted by: Nathan | May 11, 2006 5:50 PM

Sure, puffer fish, lead, mercury and uranium are all natural too. And everything's "edible", once anyway. It's an artificial difference but "natural" has meanings to the consumer that affect what people buy and why. We decide what's "natural" here, not Archer-Daniels Midland, Monsanto or anyone else trying to sell us stuff.

CSPI wants us to make the decisions on what products should stand for that label, "natural". Sometimes they're nannying and preachy about it, but I don't see anyone else asking these questions.

Even hard-core free-market types don't want people making purchasing decisions on misleading information.

Judging from the medical and public health literature, HFC will be the new health villain pretty soon, natural or otherwise. Looking at anything that's not sponsored by corn-producers it's no wonder why. Diabetes, Obesity, Weird Stickyness in Your Coke. Tastes much better when they use sugar. Within reason, I don't touch the stuff.

Posted by: Ethan | May 11, 2006 6:04 PM

Although all foods are made of chemicals. Humans are organisms that have developed over the millenia to handle certain combinations of these chemicals. The problem is, science is moving far faster than nature. Darwinism is currently weeding out those 'organisms' who can't handle the new chemicals through cancer and other diseases. Maybe in a few thousand years we will be able to handle all these new combinations of "natural." But for the bodies we have now--bottom line--natural is better.

Posted by: jjohnson | May 12, 2006 10:28 AM

Just to clarify a few points. Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are two different things. I think poster mentioned, your body processes High fructose corn syrup differently than sugar.

HFCS is cheaper because the government heavily subsidizes corn growers, so its not that there are neccessarily free market rules at play here.

As far as CSPI, I think its important to have groups like them around. The food industry has a lot of lobbysts around, and I think they provide a good counter balance.

I once had a scientist (a biochemist) tell me that animal rights activists didn't really bother him (he experimented on mice). He said told me, "You know there's a lot of paper work, which can be annoying, but it creates a balance. There's a lot of crazys out there, who wouldn't think twice about performing unneccessary experiments on animals, but because there are watchdog groups it provides a balance."

So I don't worry about us becoming a nanny state, big corporations have a lot of money to spend on advertising and lobbying to allow them to keep pushing products, if there's some counter balance, i say good.

Posted by: N. in DC | May 12, 2006 4:32 PM

John said:
"CSPI seems bent on dictating to people what they can and cannot eat. I resent their nannying and will eat what I want when I want. Will I die earlier due to poor choices, yep. That's my decision."

I love it when people like John come to argue for the right of food manufacturers to lie to us. Basically what he's saying is "if the makers of 7-Up want to lie to me, the CSPI should just butt out and not try to stop them."

I especially like his argument that he has the right to make his own poor choices, which I didn't think was under debate. The issue instead seems to be that the consumer is entitled to accurate information to base those choices on.

It's a really interesting way to think. I don't understand it, but it's interesting.

Posted by: SteveG | May 12, 2006 6:00 PM

It seems hard to argue that processed sugar or refined honey is more "natural" than High fructose corn syrup. With apologies to the Mom whose child has an allergy to corn products, more small children are at risk from honey. Infants can die from eating honey.
Besides,I am so happy that Cadbury has agreed to stop selling soda in elementary schools that I am sorry an unfortunate difference of opinion about sweetners overshadows their efforts to be honest merchants.
As for the taste of corn syrup vs. sugar, I think sugar tastes better, but federal subsidies to corn farmers make corn syrup much, much cheaper.

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Posted by: insurance auto | June 26, 2006 7:20 PM

Not only is HFCS an unnatural sweetener, but it's produced mostly from genetically modified corn that has been doused with pesticides. So how do you like having a little more poison with your poison?

Posted by: siouxsy | August 5, 2006 1:20 AM

HFCS did not exist, for all intents and purposes, until the 1970's when it became the sweetener of choice for soft drinks and other commercial products due to its lower cost per unit volume over Sucrose (cane & beet sugar).

HFCS is the result of enzyme chemistry - the development of Glucose isomerase permitted the creation of this product. Manufacturers can select from a number of concentrations including 42%, 55% (used in soft drinks) and 90% Fructose. None of these would exist absent treatment of corn syrup with the enzyme Glucose isomerase.

The different Fructose concentrations manufactured by chemical companies creates a product that is energy-dense well beyond anything that occurs in nature. Honey, the closest in energy density, is composed of 78% sugar(s) (38% Fructose, 31% Glucose and 9% other sugars).

Because of human Fructose metabolism and the neutral quality of the sweet taste - most people cannot readily grasp the amount of energy that they are consuming.

But, on the opposite side of the argument is the fact that humans have modified other food products with enzymes - and cheese is the oldest leading example. Milk is curdled by the protease enzyme chymosin or rennin (taken from a calf's stomach). Enzymatic transformation of our foodstuffs could be viewed as "natural."

Finally, humans are naturally occurring forces of nature. When we change things, are we not an extension of nature's handiwork?

Posted by: George O'Connor | August 15, 2006 5:28 PM

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