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Sugar vs. Corn Syrup: Lies & Cover Ups


In breaking news this week, the legal battle between the sugar and corn syrup industries escalated when emails discovered in more than 500K pages of subpoenaed documents revealed misgivings among the top corn syrup executives about their Sweet Surprise ad campaign.

The emails show that some top level executives were wary about calling corn syrup “natural.”

In a 2010 email, Archer Daniels-Midland spokesperson David Weintraub wrote:

I think we’re unnecessarily asking for trouble by using the ‘natural’ language…. I don’t think we really gain much in the mind of the audience or customers and I think it provides a point to ridicule the ads and the industry comes off as being disingenuous.

The ads, you’ll recall, were ridiculously folksy:

Of course, Weintraub’s fears were not misplaced. Many of us did, in fact, ridicule the Sweet Surprise campaign.

Further emails from Corn Refiner’s Association president Audrae Erickson (from April 2009) boldly claim that the Corn Refiner’s Association should not be publicly associated with the ad campaign, saying “Our sponsorship of this campaign (should) remain confidential.” (source)

Shortly after the campaign began airing, the Corn Refiner’s Association petitioned the FDA to legally change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup to the more natural-sounding “corn sugar.”

At the time, Weintraub’s emails revealed that he felt the name change would be “dishonest and sneaky.” (source)

(And, for what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen that the sugar industry is lying to us.)

Thankfully in 2012, the FDA officially denied this request.

Nevertheless the emails reveal that not everyone in the corn syrup manufacturing industry was on board with the Sweet Surprise campaign and the following FDA petition.

“How can something that comes from a big chemical factory really be natural?”

Good question! One that these emails reveal corn syrup executives were asking among themselves. (source)

So that leads to my next question.

Did they honestly think we’d be duped?

They had reservations. They knew the word “natural” would be disingenuous. They knew the “corn sugar” appellation was “dishonest and sneaky.”

Yet they spent millions of dollars on this campaign anyway, and have since been spending thousands of dollars in lawsuits with the sugar industry over their choices.


What did they hope to gain?

Were they successful?

I’d appreciate your thoughts!

(photo by dinner series)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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36 Responses to Sugar vs. Corn Syrup: Lies & Cover Ups
  1. Monica Hoffman Fintel via Facebook
    January 25, 2014 | 12:19 pm

    As an RD I was absolutely furious they did those folksy commercials saying there’s no difference!!! Which is why I haven’t joined AND for decades and I support Dietitians For Professional Integrity:).

  2. Maria Gladstone via Facebook
    January 25, 2014 | 12:26 pm

    Yes, those commercials made me laugh. Sick and tired of lies.

  3. Denise
    January 26, 2014 | 8:36 pm

    Why am I seeing an ad for Diet Dr. Pepper on this website. Your loosing credibility….I guess even the good ones sell out to make money.

    • Kristen Michaelis
      January 26, 2014 | 8:38 pm

      Please know that the ads on my site are what’s called “interest-based ads.” These are nicknamed “follow ads” because they follow you around the Internet. In other words, what is displayed in the ad is dependent on your browsing behavior. So when I visit my site, for example, all I see are ads for hotels and car rental places because I have been planning an upcoming business trip. When I was researching why tampons were dangerous, I started seeing ads for maxi pads. Likewise, when you visit my site, what you see will vary as well based on your recent browser history.

      • Jan
        January 29, 2014 | 5:46 pm

        I was wondering why I kept getting tire ads after my husband was looking for tires. Good to know ads “come to you”. I pretty much just ignore them. (I wonder what Denise was looking for earlier…)

    • Molly
      January 27, 2014 | 3:32 pm

      Denise–I see ads for personal trainer certifications (as I’ve been researching them), so the ads are based on your search history on the computer you’re using. ;)

    • Mike
      January 28, 2014 | 2:46 pm

      What diet Dr Pepper advertisement? I believe what you’re seeing is a reflection of your own browsing habits. Whoops, you goofed!

  4. J in VA
    January 26, 2014 | 11:12 pm

    I’ve been seeing lectures online that teach that ANY refined sweetener or artificial sweetener is bad for you and should be severely limited.

    One lecture I saw said that women should limit their sugar intake to 6mg a day=1 1/2 tsp. Too much fructose or sucrose (which is half fructose)is like drinking fat as far as your liver is concerned. Fructose + fiber = fruit and is good.

  5. Julia
    January 28, 2014 | 12:40 pm

    I find it interesting that those executives spent all their time debating the marketing of a crappy, unhealthy product instead of the fact that it is a crappy, unhealthy product and, hey, maybe they shouldn’t be producing it at all.

    Also, according to the article, this all came about in a court case between two branches of agribusiness: 1) the corn syrup manufacturers, and 2) the Big Sugar industry, which wants to keep pushing GMO beet sugar on everyone. Either way, the public loses.

  6. Juanda Gropp
    January 28, 2014 | 1:19 pm

    For years, since 1980, I read the labels on everything I buy and don’t buy anything with corn in it, I’m boycotting GMO everything. They don’t get one dollar from me.

    • Pat Nelson
      January 29, 2014 | 7:58 pm

      Check your prescription meds, over the counter meds, vitamins, skin care products, etc. Corn is hidden in everything. If you put it in your mouth or on your body, there is probably corn in it. We have banned GMO’s in our household. It is amazing where we find them hiding in products. Good luck and be healthy!

  7. Walter Barnett
    January 28, 2014 | 1:49 pm

    It’s my understanding that Pure Maple Syrup is supposed to be healthy. And, since we live in the Southeast (Houston)
    I’m not sure the stuff we have down here is natural. My wife uses regular ol’ pancake syrup and I try always to use Blackstrap Molasses or Honey. What are the chances of finding some good all-natural Maple Syrup in Texas?

    • Kristen Michaelis
      January 28, 2014 | 2:00 pm

      Almost none. We don’t do maple syrup here. But you can get sorghum syrup locally. I’m in Texas, too, and you can see which natural sweeteners my family enjoys here:

    • Jan
      January 29, 2014 | 5:51 pm

      About as good as finding a Texas corndog in Quebec (where most of the maple syrup comes from – and a little from Vermont.) My brand is Kirkland from Costco.

  8. Jill
    January 28, 2014 | 2:10 pm

    I love this article. The first time I saw one of those commercials I laughed at how ridiculous it was. They didn’t fool me, not for a second.

  9. John Reeve
    January 28, 2014 | 2:15 pm

    The renaming scam is indeed, deceitful, but the tip of the iceberg.

    1. 99.9% of the corn produced in the US is GMO
    2. It is generally processed with sulfur dioxide/water to improve extraction. It’s cheap, but sulfite is carried over into both the cornstarch and HFCS.If you have sulfite sensitivity, don’t touch it.
    3. When I contacted the makers of Karo light corn syrup, they said that this product was 100% glucose, with NO HFCS.
    4. The enzymatic conversion of the starch extracted from corn is done because it gives a higher fructose (sweeter) product. Of course it is safe for humans, just ask the food giants.

  10. Brittany
    January 28, 2014 | 2:48 pm

    I live in corn country and my husband made a great point when those ads were airing: Ethanol is “natural” and “comes from corn.” But I still wouldn’t want to eat it.

    Also, I think those ads backfired in some cases. They made my dad (not at all a real foodie) start asking why they were going to such lengths to convince people HFCS was okay. Hopefully other people saw right through it too.

  11. Adam
    January 28, 2014 | 2:50 pm

    The reason they went through with the advertising campaign is because the elites who tell those concerned CEOs whats GOING TO HAPPEN are a bunch of dinosaurs that won’t die and they just don’t ‘get it’. What do the elites really have in common with the demographic these ads targeted ? The answer is next to nothing. This ad campaign is the equivalent of asking your great grandmother to make the plans for your bachelor weekend in Vegas…Because of the elites disassociation and subsequent disconnectedness we occasionally we get to see their folly in ridiculous ad campaigns like this one.

  12. Jude
    January 28, 2014 | 3:33 pm

    I laughed at these ads when I saw them, but they also made me angry. I know people who bought this lie hook, line and sinker and I battle with them all the time over it.

    The other one that we have here (WI) that makes me angry is the one that assures us that once ethanol is made the rest of the corn gets used ‘for feed for livestock’. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to eat livestock that has been finished with byproducts from the ethanol process.

    Corn is just bad. Bad for people, bad for animals and bad for the environment.

  13. JoAnne
    January 28, 2014 | 3:47 pm

    This may be off point but what about agave nectar? It is also highly processed and the dark syrup is produced from the burned pieces as I understand the process. I feel that people have been duped by this industry as well. My sweeteners of choice are organic coconut palm sugar, maple syrup and honey in that order and all used in extreme moderation. I think that the American population is extremely gullible, we want to believe those pretty commercials and have forgotten how to think for ourselves. That is a dangerous mindset but Madison Avenue’s dream.

  14. Kathleen
    January 28, 2014 | 4:13 pm

    I couldn’t believe the actress would say such a crazy comment,( “Whether it’s sugar from corn or cane, your body views it the same way”) and promote consumption of any sugar without questions. We clearly can see in our world today with the rise of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, that the intake of any sugar in the processed form and in large amounts IS something to worry about!

  15. Carolyn
    January 28, 2014 | 7:06 pm

    Ads are meant to sell products and they will lie about anything. Unfortunately, too many consumers are duped!

  16. Sherrie
    January 29, 2014 | 12:49 am

    Most likely the corn syrup and sugar in most products are GMOs unless stated otherwise. Best to stay away from pre-sweetened processed foods.

  17. Janette
    January 29, 2014 | 8:00 am

    I’m sad to say that I’m one of the public that believed the ads. Yes, my head is hanging in shame (if that helps any). I feed my daughter only organic foods whenever possible so I don’t think we’ve suffered overtly from my ignorance? It does make me very grateful for this article – thanks for helping me become better informed!

  18. Erica Bowman
    January 29, 2014 | 8:22 am

    Thanks for the article but I don’t see an explanation here of why what they said in the commercial was incorrect. I am interested in learning the facts. It feels incorrect but that isn’t persuasive enough, nor is the statement about the “chemical factory.” I want real diagnostics here, facts and figures. Otherwise it is just playing on my emotion just as the ad intended. Maybe I missed a page? That is entirely possible.

  19. Pat
    January 29, 2014 | 12:43 pm

    It’s just shame. It’s so obviously causing issues for people and they still put out ads! I use sucanat, which is cane ground up. That’s natural!

  20. Connie Bennett
    January 29, 2014 | 8:28 pm

    Thanks so much for your really great post.

    Would you be kind enough to provide specific links as to what you were referring when you said “breaking news this week”?

    The only item I found was this —

    I’d like to post something on my Sugar Shock Blog, too.

    Of course, I’ll quote you, too, if that’s OK with you.

    Connie Bennett

  21. Sheila R.
    January 31, 2014 | 4:49 am

    I remember thinking those ads were a desperate attempt at fooling the public. Unfortunately I know people that did buy into the commercials and would not listen to the truth. I think some people prefer to live in the dark, that way they don’t have to make ‘tough’ changes.

  22. Melissa Stewart via Facebook
    April 11, 2014 | 8:00 pm

    Because many will still believe their marketing. Have you seen the commercial for Mazola corn oil? Claiming it’s better for lowering cholesterol than olive oil so is a better choice…

  23. Laura Terrell via Facebook
    April 11, 2014 | 9:32 pm

    I don’t think anyone in the sugar industry is on our side. They’re all pretty much the same and we get entirely too much of all of it.

  24. Laura Terrell via Facebook
    April 11, 2014 | 9:37 pm

    I thought that mazola commercial was absolutely ludicrous. You would not believe how incredibly corrupt the corn industry is. You can basically blame them for the poverty and cartels in Mexico after the passage of NAFTA. They’re not even allowed to grow their own corn even though it had been a staple food there for thousands of years.

  25. Alice Benham via Facebook
    April 12, 2014 | 8:44 am

    I was going to bring up the Mazola commercial, but I see that several beat me to it! I think America is waking up, and the corn industry is getting desperate.

  26. Michelle Norah via Facebook
    April 12, 2014 | 2:12 pm

    Like the one a couple years ago that said HFCS is just sugar, and “in moderation it is not harmful” except it’s in EVERYTHING, so if you eat anything packaged, there is no way you are consuming it “in moderation”

  27. Kevin Tran via Facebook
    April 12, 2014 | 9:19 pm

    @Michelle: Here’s something very interesting I’ve found. Recently, the WHO is working to push a recommended limit to sugar consumption and they recommended no more than 10% and 5% of total calories can induce benefits. I went inside my local Starbucks store and picked up a bottle of Tazo green tea ( Now, if my math is right (like it always is), for a 2,000 calorie diet, if one were to drink this product, they’d go over 5%. For a 2,500 calorie diet, if one were to drink this product, they’d be about five calories away from meeting 5%. Because of how the implications and availability of sugar in the food system, these guidelines were pushed and without doubt, no way people are consuming foods in moderation. In fact, no one has to purchase a Coca-Cola bottle from a vending machine of some hospital to meet these limits. They’re in everything.

  28. Gene Vacca via Facebook
    June 14, 2014 | 1:10 am

    I’m not being sarcastic here but it’s the middle of the night and I can’t sleep. Have you ever run a big business? You shouldn’t feel so scorned by this ineffective ad campaign. This is in simple terms a response to the public’s wishes, albeit not a very good one and the emails prove that. It seems that products containing HFCS have become something a percentage of the public is refusing to buy. This is a 911 wake up call for any business. If you get congress to change a law, you’ve done something. If you get big business to change their product or change how it’s marketed, it probably means there was an overwhelming public support for the change and they were losing money. And this ad is a prime example of big business responding to public demand. Congratulations to the public, they’ve learned the one fool proof trick; stop buying it!

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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