Crimes against “natural”: FDA helps healthwash HFCS

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.

11 Responsesto “Crimes against “natural”: FDA helps healthwash HFCS”

  1. Ess says:

    "Scientific research continues to confirm that high fructose corn syrup is no different from other sweeteners. It is essentially the same as table sugar and honey, and has the same number of calories."
    --Audrae Erickson 
    July 9th, 2008 at 7:53 am

    I saw King Corn too, where the message was all about the benefits and advantages of HFCS over other sweeteners and I've been wondering ever since, "No Different" or "Different"? Which one is it? Can't be both...
    Or can it?!

  2. Weeping Sore says:

    I'm too tired to manage outrage, having cried myself to sleep last night over renewal of FISA with telcom civil immunity. I suppose it also depends on what your definition of "natural" is. I live with a carnivore whose four basic food groups are: Velveeta, white bread that never molds, cheesey poofs and the brand of peanut butter that comes in 50 gal drums. It isn't easy being naturally green.

  3. Charles says:

    I sympathize - this is disgusting. One thing struck me if you check out the propaganda site (HCFSfacts.com). You find this: "Once the combination of glucose and fructose found in HFCS and sugar are absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners appear to be metabolized similarly in the body"
     
    I am not an expert on nutrition nor a biochemist but my understanding is that natural sugar is metabolized very differently to fructose and doesn't elicit the same hormonal responses from insulin or leptin from the body. This effect is not significant if you feed on mainly (truly) natural products like fruit but is when you consume products with HCFS. The result of this is that more of the food ingested will be metabolized as fat and your body will not create the feelings of "satiety" to stop you from eating. 
     
    So for any experts out there: is the HCFSfacts website full of bs?

  4. Ali says:

    Hey, Charles - I'm no scientist, but have read about this ad nauseum, and the short answer is that the HFCS facts folks are kind of full of bs, kind of not. There was some discussion in a previous post about this issue. http://www.ethicurean.com/2008/07/07/hfc/, along with some good links. I weighed in there, but since I rather like to hear myself speak, I might as well add my 2 cents here, too.
     
    Basically, my reading (including credible sources like Marion Nestle) shows that while you're right about fructose being metabolized differently, table sugar and HFCS have roughly the same ratio of fructose-to-glucose. But HFCS is way more processed, and is way cheaper, and is in absolutely everything. It's been one of the main reasons that soda and Big Gulps have become so. freakin'. huge. It also makes it possible for foods to stay on the shelf much longer, making it easier to sell nutritionally-devoid crap.

    Also, while the fructose-to-glucose ratio is "roughly" the same, it's not "exactly" the same - sucrose has a 50-50 ratio, and the HFCS that's in most sodas is 55% fructose to 45% glucose. How much does that seemingly small difference matter? I dunno. Could that extra amount of fructose be a tipping point? Who knows (though Karl in those comments does rightly point out that honey is mostly fructose).
     
    No matter how it's metabolized vs. table sugar, HFCS takes a toll on our health because it's ubiquitous, it helps promote huge portions, and it's always, always in junk that does your body no good.
    In other words, despite the corn refiners' claims to the contrary, this stuff is hardly benign.
     
     

  5. Response to Audrae: Do you personally consume HFCS?

  6. Clare says:

    I don't consume HFCS, and while it's hard, it does make me feel much better. Scientific? No. True? Yes.
    What I do know about the difference between HFCS and sucrose is the chemical bonds that combine the fructose and gluclose differ and that's what causes the different metabolic reactions.

    I'm also part of an effort to show soda manufactures how many consumers would be interested in soda made with pure cane or beet sugar instead of HFCS. Any consumer that's interested the campaign can be found here.

  7. Diane says:

    I think HFCS has a lot to do with the rampant diabetes we are seeing these days.  I have tried very hard to cut it out of my diet completely but it is very hard - that crap is in everything!  Now that it can be termed natural (the FDA screws us all again) it will be even harder to spot.  This week alone I found it in a number of surprising places - nearly every salad dressing on the grocery store shelf (exception Newman's Own - good for them!), sausauge, mayonaise, something trying to pawn itself off as french bread and roasted turkey breast.   It's not just the sodas and twinkies folks - they are putting this stuff in everything.

  8. Tee says:

    I am consistently dead set against any "modern" revolutionary introductions to the food system. Nothing is healthier than REAL food. Real food however is not profitable for conglomerates, and America no longer lives off the land but has ignorantly traded living off the land for a consumerist way of life. This is what extreme specialization of skills has bought you.
    It is curious to note that much is gained by the conglomerate as the masses flock to where the quality is questionable and the price tag is cheapest. Leaving all who dare to compete with little choice when Wal-Mart is the biggest revenue producing food store in the entire world? I wouldn't darken the doors of Wally World if they paid me. I have principles, which are mainly upholding the American right to being able to earn a living. Unfortunately, the rest of my native country has sold their own paychecks out to what has now finally caught up with them. Thank the Lord! Your cheapness took me out several years ago.
    You cannot stop the FDA nor any of the factions that drive its ruling. I especially love the idea that the government is spending billions to find the solution to rising obesity in the country. It is all traceable right back to such diabolical food system additives as chemicals that began life as carpet glue yet were discovered to be sweet and concocted chemical processes that take a healthy sweetener and create a monstrosity that is none other than worse than the original for a human body's metabolism and processing equipment.
    The FDA is famous for making things illegal that are actually good for your health and longevity as opposed to the pockets in control who don't want you to be able to obtain the alternative to their complete largess and profitability. Just like there was no need to attack Iraq yet you have no power to stop the war, you are totally ignored ... no matter what you have to say, or evidence you may present to put a stop to what you know is wrong.
     
    You just keep voting in the Republicans and the Democrats who exist solely from the lining of the pockets of the selective lobbyists who funded their election campaign. Mind you, HFCS will cease to be cheap with the rising cost of corn now that it is of value as a biofuel. Such a tangled web woven to diffuse the power of the middle class in America. You have no choice. The FDA follows the direction of purposefully placed leaders that come and go as the conglomerate sees fit once their objective for passage is accomplished.

  9. Amy says:

    This is what I wrote to the corn refiner association today:

    It is funny that you (CRA) are feeling heady about this ruling. Your $30 million dollar ad campaign is a joke. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. American's in the health industry are WARNING their patients about HFCS. It happens everyday across America, in hundreds of medical offices. Your cat is out of the bag. HFCS is EVIL! You are promoting a chemical that is KILLING AMERICANS. How do you sleep at night? This is chemical warfare. You should be arrested. It is not "natural" and you know this. It is not "found" in nature, it is chemically processed. You paid the FDA. The FDA has very little funding from the government because industries like yours "pay" the FDA under the guise of grants and research. I will still wear my "HFCS is Evil" to Publix and to public events. I have enjoyed educating several thousand people over the past 5 years about this evil. Good luck in your pathetic attempt to paint a smiley face on a devil!

  10. Doc Sucrose says:

    People who think HFCS is okay need to do the research. Fructose is converted to fat by the body more readily than other sugars - so it makes more fat and it doesn't even fill you up because your blood sugar level doesn't increase as much.

    We need consumer support for new products without HFCS - force the beverage companies to switch back to cane sugar. http://drinkvivi.com is one of the companies seeking to deliver natural priducts to the consumer and fight against high fructose corn syrup.