Sugar Industry Suing Corn Refiners Over Ad Claims

What is "sugar"? What is "natural"?

These two questions are at the heart of a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by Big Sugar against Big Corn.

Eri Morita | Riser | Getty Images

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has long been the sweetener of choice for the U.S. soda market, but as public debate over obesity heated up, consumers started to sour on syrup. So the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) launched a public-service campaign to convince consumers that HFCS is "natural" and no different from sugar. "Sugar is sugar," CRA's spokeswoman has said.

No, it's not, according to the Western Sugar Cooperative and other sugar-beet and sugar-cane farmers. They call the HFCS campaign "food identity theft." They're suing the CRA and members Archers Daniel Midland and Cargill for false advertising, claiming the estimated $50 million campaign has illegally damaged the sugar business.

There is no FDA definition for "natural," though there is one for sugar, or sucrose. Tuesday, in court, the CRA asked federal judge Consuelo Marshall to dismiss the case, arguing that its campaign to promote HFCS is protected speech, not commercial speech, since they are an industry association, not a business. Attorney Dan Webb says the sugar lobby is "attempting to stifle debate" about whether or not HFCS contributes to obesity.

This is not the first time sugar farmers have sued over a product claiming to be natural and just like sugar. The same cooperative sued the makers of Splenda in 2008, a suit later settled out of court. When asked why sugar farmers feel the need to sue rivals, their attorney, Adam Fox, points out they only sue when they believe there's misinformation. "We haven't sued the makers of honey for calling itself 'natural'."

The current economics, however, may favor corn over sugar. Stephens, Inc. says HFCS prices are up 9.4 percent in a year, but sugar prices are up 41.7 percent. Bradley Safalow at PAA Research says, "The vilification of high-fructose corn syrup has sparked a surge in demand for products made with refined sugar," leading to tight supplies and perhaps making corn more attractive to food manufacturers.

Still, sugar wants corn to pay. Attorney Adam Fox estimates that every penny-per-pound of business lost to HFCS costs sugar farmers $160 million. Meantime, the corn industry is petitioning the FDA to rename High Fructose Corn Syrup "corn sugar."