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In sweetener war, stealth tactics

WASHINGTON — A group called Citizens for Health recently launched a campaign to encourage consumers to reduce high-fructose corn syrup in their diet — 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 funding in the year it launched the effort from sugar companies, which see corn syrup as a threat to their profits.

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The sugar industry’s investment in this nonprofit group, detailed in newly released internal documents, is part of a growing strategy used by corporate and other interests seeking to influence policy making.

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

The new approach gives deep-pocketed interests more tools to influence policy but without the transparency that lobbyist registration rules require. Nonprofit organizations are not required to publicly reveal their donors.

The trend toward this so-called ‘‘soft lobbying’’ is clear. 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 rules.

The documents lay out in striking detail the extent to which two large rivals — the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association — made use of these alternative 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. It was a less expensive alternative to sugar for US production of Coke, Pepsi, and other soft drinks, baked goods, and soups.

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

Both sides poured money into nonprofits that have had feel-good names but promote industry agendas. Both sides financed academic research to bolster their positions.

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

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

‘‘Our research debunks the vilification of high-fructose corn syrup,’’ Rippe said in a press statement. In an interview, he confirmed that, on top of the $10 million for research paid to his institute, he received a consulting fee of $500,000 a year from corn refiners.

Corn refiners sent an additional $2.3 million over two years to the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, which subsequently launched television, newspaper, and Web campaigns to defend corn syrup.

Documents show the sugar industry moved early to embrace aggressive tactics. Sugar Association memos from 2003 and 2004 describe its top objective as ‘‘replacement of high- fructose corn syrup’’ with sugar.

One document boasts the sugar group had ‘‘fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate on high-fructose corn syrup.’’

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

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