The Corn Refiners Association is out to flip on its ear high fructose corn syrup's bad reputation.
The association is in the midst of a national 18-month television, print and online ad campaign that touts the sweetener as "natural," "made from corn" and "fine in moderation."
But local consumers and dietitians aren't buying it.
"My concern is that when people hear 'natural' they assume that it's good for them and they consume anything called natural in excess quantities," says Keri Gans, a registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. "I think certain words, when people hear them, a light bulb goes off, and it's not necessarily the light bulb we want."
High fructose corn syrup is in thousands of foods -- from soft drinks and ketchup to juices and even bread. It helps foods maintain moisture and flavor, according to the Corn Refiners Association. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified the sweetener as natural.
But high fructose corn syrup has been accused of contributing to the rise of diabetes and obesity in the United States.
Some studies, such as one in 2007 by a Rutgers University food sciences professor published by the American Chemical Society, claim to have found a connection. The Rutgers study found that sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup contained compounds linked to triggering cell and tissue damage that can lead to diabetes.
But the American Medical Association recently concluded that high fructose corn syrup isn't worse than other caloric sweeteners like sugar, citing a lack of evidence proving otherwise.
"It's empty calories, and too much of those can lead to weight gain," says Gunilla Nordhammar, a dietitian with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "But there is no up-to-date research that shows it being more evil than anything else."
The corn refiners' ad campaign began shortly after the AMA's announcement last summer.
"We needed to set the record straight, because consumers need to know what they are buying and not be misled by a confusion of terms in the marketplace," says Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association. "It is not high in fructose."
Still, Susan Hawk says she's not about to sweeten up to high fructose corn syrup because of a few TV ads.
"Not at all," says Hawk, 40, of Baldwin. "I think they are trying to combat negative publicity. I don't believe the commercials."
Ruth Wolfe, a dietitian at Allegheny General Hospital, says the sweetener should be consumed in moderation.
But more and more people are ingesting the sweetener.
High fructose corn syrup consumption in 2006 was eight times higher per person than in 1976, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sugar consumption decreased 33 percent in the same period, USDA data showed.
Pat Waters of Baldwin says perhaps the corn refiners' ads would convince people to look at the labels of the products they're buying.
"It's sugar," she says, "no matter what you call it."