Several companies integral to Iowa’s agricultural economy have been named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by three sugar producers who are upset by a new marketing pitch for high-fructose corn syrup that labels the product as “corn sugar.”

Those companies named as defendants are Archer Daniels Midland Co., Cargill Inc., Corn Products International Inc., Penford Products Co., Roquette America Inc. and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas Inc., as well as the companies’ marketing and lobbying organization, the Corn Refiners Association Inc.

The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, was brought by the Western Sugar Cooperative, Michigan Sugar Co. and C&H Sugar Company Inc. and seeks to end the corn industry’s marketing campaign, establish corrective marketing and collect damages for false advertising.

The Corn Refiners Association petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow manufactures to use “corn sugar” as an alternative name for high-fructose corn syrup — a product that has been tarnished in recent years as a link to obesity and other health complications. Independent research, according to the organization, indicated that despite the fact that high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar contain approximately the same amount of fructose, nearly 58 percent of respondents believed high-fructose corn syrup has more fructose than other table sugar.

“The term ‘corn sugar’ succinctly and accurately describes what this natural ingredient is and where it comes from — corn,” said Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, in a September 2010 press release about the government petition (.pdf) for the alternative name.

Since that time the Corn Refiners Association has created and developed the cornsugar.com domain, and has begun using the moniker “corn sugar” in several marketing blitzes, including on the sweetsurprise.com domain and a connected blog. The FDA has yet to decide on the petition.

The corn industry maintains that its marketing campaign is simply about educating end users of their product, the consumers.

The Western Sugar Cooperative, which represents American sugar beet producers, argues that the stunt is false advertising, and contends that that if the public had a bad perception of the product, high-fructose corn syrup, then the product should have been improved or benefits should have been better explained.

But the battle over use of the word “sugar” comes at a time when the general public is hearing the call of some nutritionists and health care experts who are warning that all such substances — beet and sugar cane sugar, both white and brown, and high-fructose corn syrup — are “toxins” or “poisons.” But the controversy surrounding sugars has been ongoing for at least three decades, and is probably one of the primary reasons, other than manufacturers’ cost, that high-fructose corn syrup became so prevalent.

The Corn Refiners Association contends, however, that its “goal is not to present high-fructose corn syrup as a health food, nor is our goal to increase consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.” Instead the industry hopes to “clear up confusion about its role in the food and beverages Americans consume.”

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