Stealth Lobbying Used to Tout Sugar Over Rival Corn Syrup

A group that bills itself as the “voice of the natural-health consumer” has received about $300,000 from the sugar industry to help campaign against high-fructose corn syrup as an alternative sweetener.

Citizens for Health, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, received more than half its funding in the past year from the Sugar Association. The money has been used to tell consumers that corn syrup isn’t sugar, Chairman James Turner said in an interview.

The sugar group’s backing shows how business groups and nonprofit organizations can align to sway public opinion, said Robert Maguire, outside-spending researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

“These kind of things are a dime-a-dozen,” Maguire, of the watchdog group, said in a phone interview. “They always have pretty names that obscure the industry.”

For more than a year, sugar manufacturers and corn refiners led by Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. have been in a fight over labeling high-fructose corn syrup, a lower-cost option, as “corn sugar.”

Turner defended his group’s acceptance of the Washington-based Sugar Association’s cash. “If a marketplace player is willing to support advancing the consumer interest, it’s really important to work with them,” Turner said.

Citizens United

Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said the government can’t restrict independent corporate spending on political issues, the flow of untraceable money has become a flood, according to Maguire.

The Center to Protect Patients Rights, which is tied to billionaires Charles and David Koch, funneled $44 million to groups for advertisements against the 2010 health-care law, Maguire said. Other groups, some of which have existed for decades, take positions on multiple issues: Americans for Tax Reform, the small-government group led by lobbyist Grover Norquist, has worked on property rights to cap-and-trade policy.

Citizens for Health, founded in 1992, opposed efforts by refiners including ADM of Decatur, Illinois, and Cargill of Minneapolis to call their sweetener “corn sugar” in advertisements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration rebuffed the refiners’ request on May 30, saying sugar is a solid and syrup is a liquid.

Research Disputed

Too much fructose in a diet may lead to obesity, according to critics such as Citizens for Health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified the syrup as safe, just not called a sugar. An article published today in the International Journal of Obesity by four university researchers, including two with ties to the Corn Refiners Association, concludes that high-fructose corn syrup alone doesn’t cause obesity or other health problems.

“Scientific evidence shows that consuming” high-fructose corn syrup “might lead to health problems, including obesity, childhood diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease,” Citizens for Health says on its website.

Turner said he has contacted the sugar industry at various times since the early 1970s on common causes. The Sugar Association provided funding about six years ago, when both organizations opposed marketing for Splenda, a low-calorie sweetener, he said.

Food Concerns

The group also advocates for chemical-free foods and expanded access to dietary supplements, according to its website. While the organization is registered through Turner’s law office, its staff works in offices across the country, he said.

While the organization has said it takes money from business groups, it could have done more to disclose its ties to the sugar industry, Turner said.

“We will make it clear as we go forward,” he said.

High-fructose corn syrup is refined from corn into a sweetener that has become a common ingredient in cereals, yogurts, soups and other foods. It is popular because it costs less than sugar, partly because government policies boost corn supplies and restrict sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association rejects such claims. The corn-based sweetener “is basically the same as sugar,” according to the Washington-based group’s website,

Ads Challenged

Sugar producers led by the Denver-based Western Sugar Cooperative in April 2011 sued members of the refiners association in U.S. District Court in California, accusing the group of false advertising against sugar. Corn-syrup producers sued on Sept. 4, stating that sugar producers attempted “to vilify or perpetuate the vilification of” their product.

The Corn Refiners Association had $27.3 million in revenue and $27.6 million in expenses in 2010, the last year for which data were available, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The Sugar Association had $2.4 million in revenue and $2.7 million in expenses in 2010. Revenue rose to $4.2 million and expenses climbed to $4.3 million last year, documents showed.

Lawyers for ADM, Cargill, Ingredion Inc., the Corn Refiners Association and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas Inc. on Sept. 7 won a subpoena requiring Citizens for Health to hand over records of all communications and financial links with the sugar-industry plaintiffs. The subpoena ordered the health group to comply by Sept. 28.

Public Trust

“People place a lot of trust in consumer groups, and the expectation is they are solely acting in the public’s interest,” Dan Webb, lead attorney for the corn refiners’ group, said in a statement. Sugar Association President Andrew Briscoe has previously said his group funded Citizens for Health at the time sugar producers were suing Tate & Lyle Plc, the maker of Splenda, according to Webb.

“We think it’s important to find out if this kind of quid-pro-quo relationship continues,” he said.

Adam Fox, an attorney representing sugar groups, said Citizens for Health approached the Sugar Association to seek funding. The group’s leaders were free to use the money “as they saw fit,” as long as it supported a fact-based message and wasn’t used for “mud-slinging,” he said.

“In some sense you could characterize this as corporations doing a good thing,” Fox said.

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