Four corn refiners fighting accusations that their claims that high fructose corn syrup is no different from table sugar are misleading have countersued, accusing the sugar industry’s trade association of ignoring science to argue its product is somehow healthier.

“The Sugar Association’s statements deceive consumers into believing that they will be healthier if they consume foods and beverages with processed sugar instead of HFCS [high fructose corn syrup],” wrote Gail Standish, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Winston & Strawn, who represents four corn refiners that filed counterclaims on September 4 against The Sugar Association Inc. “Americans should be consuming less of all added sugars, whether the source be processed sugar, HFCS, or any other kind of added sugar. Vilifying one kind of added sugar will not reduce Americans’ waistlines. Reducing all added sugars, and reducing caloric intake in general, will.”

An attorney for The Sugar Association, based in Washington, immediately refuted the counterclaims.

“The defendants are pulling out every stop, first trying to avoid answering the lawsuit and now apparently trying to muddy the issues with their counterclaim,” said Squire Sanders Los Angeles partner Adam Fox, co-lead counsel for The Sugar Association and nine individual sugar companies. “I am confident that this most recent tactical ploy by ADM, Cargill and the others won’t fool anyone. The evidence plainly shows that sugar and HFCS are not the same. They are molecularly different. They are functionally different. The body can tell the difference.”

The counterclaims were the latest salvo in the battle between sugar and corn syrup. In their suit, filed last year against the Corn Refiners Association and five of its member companies, The Sugar Association and its member companies alleged that the corn refiners’ advertising campaign made false and misleading claims that corn syrup is “natural,” that “sugar is sugar,” that “your body can’t tell the difference” and that it’s “nutritionally the same as table sugar.”

On July 31, U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall in Los Angeles refused to dismiss the suit, which alleged false advertising under the Lanham Act, the federal trademark law. She dismissed one of the member companies, Roquette Inc., from the litigation. The remaining four are Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.; Cargill Inc.; Ingredion Inc. (formerly Corn Products International Inc.); and Tate & Lyle Ingredients Americas Inc. The Corn Refiners Association was not a party to the dismissal motion.

In their counterclaims, also brought under the Lanham Act, the corn refiner companies argued that high fructose corn syrup is “nutritionally equivalent” to processed sugar. They said the sugar companies have launched attacks based on questionable scientific studies — in particular, a 2004 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that posited a link between high fructose corn syrup and obesity. The sugar companies have continued to assert such a connection, even though the authors of the report have since backtracked on the theory.

“As such, The Sugar Association has worked to perpetuate the myth that HFCS uniquely contributes to obesity and other health problems, preying upon consumers’ food fears and diverting attention from the real issue — that Americans should reduce their consumption of all added sugars and calories in general,” Standish wrote.

She added that the sugar companies also have touted misleading reports of a link between high fructose corn syrup and memory loss and depicting high fructose corn syrup as “crack cocaine” to be “avoided at all costs.”

On May 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rejected a petition by the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar.”

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.