LOS ANGELES — A recent attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup, a widely used but increasingly controversial sweetener, to corn syrup, was misleading and could have robbed consumers of important information, a top official at the Food and Drug Administration said in documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The comments came last year as the Corn Refiners Association sought clarity over whether it could make that name change. That informal request was subsequently withdrawn, and in September 2010, the group filed a formal petition seeking a more radical name change: "corn sugar."
The corn industry is attempting an image makeover for high-fructose corn syrup after some scientists linked it to obesity and other health problems and some food companies started touting products that did not contain the ingredient. High-fructose corn syrup is present in most sodas and a staggering array of processed foods.
In response to the Corn Refiners Association's request to use the term "corn syrup," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, told colleagues he was uncomfortable with changing the name and suggested that allowing it would deprive consumers of important information and invite ridicule.
"It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it," Taylor told colleagues in an e-mail dated March 15, 2010. "If we allow it, we will rightly be mocked both on the substance of the outcome and the process through which it was achieved."
FDA spokesman Doug Karas said Taylor's comments should be looked at in the context of the proposed name change to "corn syrup" and nothing should be inferred about what the FDA's decision may be regarding the ongoing review to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar."
"The conversation you have is in a different context and does not, or will not, affect the outcome of the petition itself," Karas said.
In his e-mail, Taylor also expresses frustration that the corn industry had asked informally to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup, and he worried about the agency's credibility if it okayed the request.
Corn Refiners Association spokeswoman Audrae Erickson said she hadn't seen Taylor's statements and couldn't comment.
In an e-mailed statement, she said the inquiry about the term "corn syrup" being used "speaks for itself, was provided for agency consideration and comment, and carried no misleading element whatsoever."
Even though the term "corn sugar" has not been approved, the corn industry has started using it in a series of high-profile television, online and print advertisements telling consumers that "sugar is sugar" and that corn sugar is natural and safe, consumed in moderation.
The sugar industry has sued over the claims, saying they amount to false advertising.
Scientists are split over whether high-fructose corn syrup is any more damaging than regular sugar. The American Medical Association has said there's not enough evidence to restrict the use of high-fructose corn syrup, though it wants more research.