A confluence of low commodity prices and negative headlines for high-fructose corn syrup is creating a turf war in the battle for industrial sweeteners. Two of the largest suppliers of corn syrup, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, are cutting prices for 2014 as weak sugar prices could make sucrose—plain old table sugar—a competitive option for many large food and beverage companies.
The cuts come as U.S. corn prices hover near lows not seen since 2010, owing to an expected record harvest this fall of 13.99 billion bushels, according to a report last week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That gives big corn processors some room to maneuver on pricing syrup.
ADM told its customers in recent weeks to expect prices for corn syrup to drop about 10 percent from current levels, according to a spokeswoman. Reuters reported similar signals from privately held Cargill, which did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The price cuts come after federal regulators denied a push last year by a trade group, the Corn Refiners Association, to use the term “corn sugar” in their advertising as part of an effort by corn interests to counter bad press from studies linking high-fructose corn syrup with obesity. The refiners association contends that sugar and corn syrup are nutritionally the same. By the trade group’s count, Americans last year consumed 25 percent less high-fructose corn syrup than the peak level reached in 1999, when the average American ingested about 45.5 pounds of the stuff.
The obesity headlines have taken a toll on Big Corn. Many consumer products now tout an absence of corn syrup as a virtue, and various online groups have taken to tracking which food makers have switched to alternate sweeteners. What’s more, sugar has ardent fans who claim to taste a difference: Witness the recent outcry when Mexico’s Coca-Cola (KO) bottler suggested a switch from cane sugar to corn syrup.