A worker monitors a controlled burn at a U.S. Sugar Corp. field during harvest in Belle Glade, Fla. on Oct. 31, 2013. (Mark Elias/Bloomberg)

A group called Citizens for Health recently began a campaign to encourage consumers to reduce high-fructose corn syrup in their diets, filing a petition with the Food and Drug Administration demanding stricter labeling on food items containing the sweetener.

Yet the petition did not disclose that the organization, which bills itself as the “voice of the natural-health consumer,” received the bulk of its money at the time from sugar companies, which view corn syrup as a threat to their profits. Since 2011, the organization has received at least $500,000 from the industry.

Sugar companies’ investments in this nonprofit group, detailed in newly released internal documents, are part of a growing strategy used by corporate interests seeking to influence Washington policymaking.

No longer content to rely on traditional lobbyists, companies are investing in other messengers, such as nonprofit groups or academicians, that can provide expert testimony, shape news media coverage and change public opinion in ways that ultimately affect decisions in the nation’s capital.

The new approach lacks the transparency that comes from traditional lobbyist registration rules that provide a visible trail of corporate contact with lawmakers and regulators. Nonprofit organizations, now playing an increasing role in lobbying and electoral politics, are not required to publicly reveal their donors.

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How the sweetener war turned sour

Newly released documents show how intense, expensive and bitter a modern lobbying battle can be.

The trend toward “soft lobbying” is clear in new data. Major corporations are hiring fewer registered lobbyists in the capital overall, with reported spending declining in 2013 to a five-year low, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the seeming decline is more than offset by increased unreported spending on other methods to shape laws and regulations.

The new documents lay out in striking detail the extent to which two large and competing industry groups — the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association — made use of these alternative influence tactics as they jockeyed to protect their positions in a health-conscious food market.

Sugar and corn have been in intense competition since the 1980s, when corn syrup became one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors as it was selected as a less-expensive alternative to sugar for the U.S. production of Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks as well as baked goods, soups and other manufactured foods.

The new documents were released as part of a lawsuit in which the sugar industry contends that the corn refiners engaged in a “sinister conspiracy” to get the public to falsely believe that corn syrup is “natural corn sugar” effectively indistinguishable from table sugar.

The documents reveal how both sides poured money into nonprofit groups that have had feel-good names but promoted industry agendas in public campaigns and government proceedings. Both sides financed academic research to bolster their positions — in some cases, sugar advocates cited research once considered so dubious by in-house science advisers that the advisers warned against using it. A spokesman for the Sugar Association said the scientists’ views changed as more information was revealed.

One prominent Florida doctor specializing in health and nutrition has received $10 million since 2008 from the corn-refining industry for research that continues to show that corn syrup is no less healthful than table sugar.

The researcher, James Rippe, a Harvard-trained cardiologist who runs the Rippe Lifestyle ­Institute, presented 30 peer-
reviewed studies showing that there is no nutritional difference between sugar and corn syrup.

“Our research debunks the vilification of high fructose corn syrup,” Rippe said in a statement accompanying one of his recently published studies. In an interview, he said that in addition to the research funding paid to his institute, he personally receives a consulting fee of $500,000 a year from the corn refiners.

“It is expensive because you have to put people in a metabolic unit, draw blood regularly for 36 hours,” he said in an interview. “These are not trivial studies. They are detailed, delicate and intricate.”

Corn industry officials said most of the money it pays Rippe is dedicated to research.

“More than eight out of ten dollars paid to Dr. James Rippe has gone to funding, in a transparent way, high quality clinical research, the results of which have been published in peer reviewed journals,” the corn refiners said in a statement.

To further bolster their case with lawmakers and the public, the refiners sent an additional $3.2 million over two years to a nonprofit group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which subsequently began a television, newspaper and online campaign to defend corn syrup safety and undermine critics.

Initially, industry officials sought to conceal their role in the campaign.

A September 2009 e-mail from Audrae Erickson, then the chief executive of the Corn Refiners Association, detailed a plan to keep the industry’s role secret. She wrote officials at Cargill, attaching copies of forthcoming television and newspaper ads developed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group directed by Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist who specializes in using nonprofit groups for corporate messaging.

“As you know, our sponsorship of this campaign remains confidential,” Erickson wrote. “We are funding Berman & Co. directly, not the Center for Consumer Freedom which is running the ads. If asked, please feel free to state the following: ‘The Corn Refiners Association is not funding the Center for Consumer Freedom.’ ” Berman and Co. declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing litigation.

The documents show that the sugar industry moved early to embrace aggressive tactics. Internal Sugar Association memos from 2003 and 2004 describe trade group’s top objective as “replacement of High Fructose Corn Syrup” with sugar.

A year-in-review document from April 2004 boasts that the sugar group already had “fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate on High Fructose Corn Syrup.” It also described outreach to Coca-Cola and Pepsi executives and the establishment of a scientific advisory board consulting with a private firm called the Academic Network that would guide and support research on corn syrup.

In the memos and the newly revealed contracts with outside experts and groups, the association repeats its generic interest in using “sound scientific principles” to make its case. Yet internal e-mails and other documents suggest that industry officials were willing to tout what some of their top officials once thought were bad data.

One Sugar Association memo lambasted a 2010 study suggesting that high concentrations of fructose in beverages sweetened with corn syrup “could have important implications for metabolic health.” The memo said that the study was “so totally flawed the Association should neither include this study in the body of evidence or should issue any public statement on it.” Nonetheless, the association and its allies later cited the study’s findings repeatedly.

Adam Fox, a lawyer for the sugar industry, said subsequent exchanges in scientific journals validated the original work. “No one at the Sugar Association has ever promoted a study known to be flawed,” he said.

Lawyers for the corn refiners group disputed his account, citing ongoing controversy about the initial studies.

The debate intensified in 2010, when the corn refiners asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow high-fructose corn syrup to be renamed “corn sugar,” a move that the Sugar Association blasted as “a blatant attempt to steal sugar’s identity and goodwill.”

In 2011, the documents show, the Sugar Association infused the Citizens for Health group with a $350,0000 donation, an amount that subsequently increased to more than half a million dollars.

“I worked hard to get sugar as an ally,” said James Turner, the Washington lawyer who formed Citizens for Health in 1992. He recalled being outraged that corn syrup firms sought to relabel their product as corn sugar. “When there are market forces that have views that are the same as mine, I want to get with them.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.