The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the sweetener war turned very, very sour

The war between sweetener interests is leaving a decidedly bad taste in the mouths of those participating in and watching the dispute, which pits the sugar industry and its trade group, the Sugar Association, against the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of high-fructose corn syrup, a sugar substitute.

The Sugar Association suit alleges there has been a longstanding “sinister conspiracy” by the corn refiners that “deceived the public and press, concealed their relationships to advocates to whom they paid millions of dollars and schemed to obscure science important to public health.” The Corn Refiners responded in a court filing by saying “it is the sugar industry plaintiffs that are trying to hide and distort information about health and scientific studies as part of a malicious campaign to drive people away from HFCS and to processed sugar.”

The documents show payments of millions of dollars by the Corn Refiners Association to prominent medical researchers who publish articles that align with their views. And they reveal Sugar Association payments to a Washington group, Citizens for Health, that recently asked the FDA for more rigorous labeling of corn syrup.

Lawyers for the sugar interests told The Washington Post that the Citizens group had a free hand to use the funds it receives. But one of the recently released documents shows strings attached to a long schedule of payments, including this: “In the event that the association’s lawsuit against the CRA is settled, Citizens for Health must “halt that part of its campaign directed at the big [high-fructose corn syrup] processors and the CRA to steal real sugar’s identity and goodwill.”

The documents also seem to reveal a cynical streak in the Washington-based trade associations that direct political and public relations strategies for both industries. For example, they show the Sugar Association disparaging an academic study as "totally flawed."

Nevertheless, the association later touted the same study as evidence that corn syrup may contribute more to fat formation than sugar.

Adam Fox, a lawyer for the sugar group, told The Washington Post that the original objections were answered in subsequent academic correspondence and noted that some published complaints appear to have been orchestrated by the corn refiners. “No one at the Sugar Association has ever promoted a study known to be flawed,” Fox said.

The Sugar Association cited internal CRA documents to substantiate its claims. In the e-mail excerpted below, then-CEO of the Corn Refiners Association Audrae Erickson confidentially shares information with Larry Hobbs of the International Society of Beverage Technologists, who co-authored a letter criticizing the study. Erickson’s message reads “please make sure not to use the Word version of the release that David Knowles and I sent you as someone could detect CRA edits to the document.”

Meanwhile, a September 2009 e-mail from the Corn Refiners Association reveals its top executive telling officials at Cargill Inc. to publicly deny corn industry funding of a non-profit organization that was helping the refiners make their case.

A veteran of hard-fought food and nutrition battles in Washington was surprised at the expense and the extent of distortions in the industry campaigns.

"I was stunned" said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Science in the Public Interest, after reviewing the recently-released papers at the request of the Washington Post. "This reflects so poorly on both the Sugar Association and on the corn refiners - and on the scientists who wish to be viewed as objective. Accepting industry largesse can turn the recipients "in to a surrogate -- more-objective-appearing salespeople for the industry's ideas and products," he said.

Most disconcerting to Jacobson and other nutrition activists, the industry dispute over two nutritionally similar products obscures the central role they both play in an international obesity epidemic.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of documents from the suit at the request of the Washington Post, Jacobson said he did not detect anything sweet about the tactics used by both sides in the sweetener wars. “I felt that I had to immediately wash my hands,” he said.