Conveniently timed with the Corn Refiners Association's multimillion-dollar campaign to sweeten consumers' appetite for high fructose corn syrup, the FDA has reversed its position on whether HFCS can be labeled "natural," reports Food Navigator yesterday.
"HFCS, like table sugar and honey, is natural. It is made from corn, a natural grain product,” says Corn Refiners President Audrae Erickson in the association's statement gloating about welcoming the government approval. Erickson happened to stop by the Ethicurean today to comment on Monday's guest post about the campaign and to provide a link to the entertainingly bucolic, wonderfully reassuring HFCSfacts.com. Those who saw the documentary "King Corn" (review) will remember Erickson's unblinking, robotic stonewalling of the two filmmakers as they sought to observe the HFCS manufacturing process; they gave up and made it at home using some dangerous chemicals.
The FDA has split some molecular hairs in arriving at this decision, which was conveyed in a letter to the Corn Refiners Association (presumably with a lipsticked kiss on the envelope). Specifically, HFCS can be labeled "natural" when synthetic fixing agents are kept separate from it during manufacturing, as Archer Daniels Midland swore on a stack of stock certificates they are in ADM's factories. Quoting Food Navigator:
The process sees the enzymes for making HFCS being fixed to a column by the use of a synthetic fixing agent called glutaraldehyde. However, this agent does not come into contact with the high dextrose equivalent corn starch hydrolysate and so it is not "considered to be included or added to the HFCS," said [FDA rep] June. "However, we would object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS that has a synthetic substance such as a synthetic fixing agent included in or added to it … We would also object to the use of the term 'natural' on a product containing HFCS if the acids used to obtain the starch hydrolysate do not fit within our policy on 'natural'."
Hmm. What is the FDA's policy on "natural"? Because I thought it had at least something to do with what consumers thought of when they read the word on a label: you know, bunnies hopping through the forest and stuff you don't have second thoughts about feeding your kid. (At least it does with meat.) In a 2004 Washington Post article, a chemistry prof has fun disabusing this notion that nature doesn't include some nasty chemicals and reminds us that even FDA-approved "natural flavors" are usually derived chemically.
I like calling HFCS the "devil's candy" because I think the "foodlike substances" it most often shows up in are empty-calorie crap that no one should waste even a few pennies on. However, I happen to agree with our current pedant-in-residence commenter Inoculated Mind that it's no more toxic metabolically than refined sugar. But "natural"? Gag me with a spoon — full of honey, preferably. Corn Refiners can't possibly say this with a straight face (well, maybe Erickson could): They just want access to a huge and growing market being driven by the dollars of you, me, and other LOHAS folks. And the FDA is happy to oblige.
What's next — certified organic HFCS? Oh wait...
Further reading: The Corn Refiners Associaton has a handy photo-illustrated guide to the "natural" process by which they process corn into animal feed and sweeteners, from which the above photos were borrowed.