The Sweetener Industry's Bitter Week

Photograph by Richard Drew/AP Photo

Things aren’t so sweet for the makers of sweet.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched an attack on soft drink makers this week with a surprise announcement from the city’s health department: As part of an ambitious anti-obesity campaign, the city is planning to ban the sale of large sugary sodas. Starting as early as next March, sodas in containers bigger than 16 fluid ounces will no longer be sold in New York’s movie theaters, delis, restaurants, and corner stores. (Disclaimer: Bloomberg owns this magazine.) The mayor’s announcement came a day before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration dealt another blow to the sweetener industry with a ruling in a fight that pitted sugar producers against manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous sweetener that’s derived from corn starch and used in soda.

Sugar and high fructose corn syrup rank among the key reasons why more than a third of American adults are obese. While the jury’s still out on which is the bigger offender, high fructose corn syrup attracts far more blame for our bulging waistlines than sugar. To combat its image problem, the Corn Refiners Association put together a TV ad last year that featured a father and a daughter standing together in a ripening Midwestern corn field. “Your body can’t tell the difference,” the father tells the daughter. “Sugar is sugar.” Sugar makers fought the ad blitz by filing a false advertising lawsuit against the corn lobby in federal court. The case is pending.

The corn lobby also petitioned the FDA to re-label high fructose corn syrup “corn sugar.” (That’s arguably healthier-sounding and definitely less of a mouthful.) The agency has now rejected that idea. “Use of the term ‘sugar’ to describe HFCS, a product that is a syrup, would not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties,” Michael Landa, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a letter denying the corn industry’s petition. Between that and Bloomberg’s ban, Washington and New York have probably done as much as they could have to put the country’s corn-rich mid-section in a sour mood.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.