Corn syrup, a sticky mess
By Joel Preston Smith
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
— Juliet, in Romeo & Juliet
Smart as Shakespeare was, he’d have fallen on his own sword as a marketing rep. What you call things truly does matter—witness the current feud over whether the Food and Drug Administration should allow high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to be rechristened “corn sugar” on consumer product labels.
The rebranding flap has metastasized into a lawsuit whose symptoms include charges of fraudulent advertising, disjointed and wildly convoluted arguments by both lobbyists and scientists, and a series of spoofs on YouTube. As of May 2011, eight sugar processors and two trade organizations had joined suit (filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles) to stop refiners and packagers from allowing HFCS to be promoted as “natural,” or re-branded as corn sugar.
The refiners association, which represents some of the largest agricultural corporations in the United States, might be trying to outrun corn syrup’s sullied reputation, but the group’s president, Audrae Erickson, says the industry just wants to “clarify” things for the public.
It isn’t every day a consortium of manufacturing giants undertakes the costly task of re-educating the consumer public, so in the interest of clarity we’re going to illustrate what’s at stake, why it matters, and how something so sweet as sugar suddenly got so bitter.
We don’t need no HFCS
In 2005, corn syrup was spreading like hot molasses. Fifty-four percent of all added sweeteners in the U.S. market came from corn, according to the refiners association. Corn dominated, despite a 2002 ban on HFCS imports by Mexico, a prohibition that cost the industry $944 million over the following four years. From 1970 to 2005, the average consumption of added sugars and caloric sweeteners grew 19 percent—from 119 pounds per person in 1970, to 142 pounds per person in 2005—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The agency reports that sugar production from cane and beets fell 33 percent during the same time frame.
HFCS had deposed cane and beet sugar in the American diet, and things couldn’t have looked sweeter for the corn grinders. Then came a series of studies that seemed to implicate HFCS in the growing obesity epidemic domestically. The sweetener was further linked to heart disease, insulin resistance (and therefore implicated in diabetes), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, decreased satiety (causing a tendency to overeat), abnormal concentrations of lipids in the bloodstream, high blood pressure– and the list goes on.
In 2009, researchers reported finding mercury in nine of 20 food products containing HFCS. The study, published Sept. 9 in the journal Environmental Health, noted that mercury is present in some of the chemicals used to refine corn sugar in at least eight U.S. factories; the researchers then speculated that some of the 65 tons of mercury reported missing from those plants in 2000 might have made their way into HFCS. When they asked refiners if a given facility used mercury in HFCS production, they were told that such information was “proprietary.” The industry shipped 20.6 billion gallons of HFCS in 2009, according to the Corn Refiners Association’s annual report.
David Knowles, communications director for the Corn Refiners Association, did not respond to written or phone queries regarding whether any of its members used mercury in the production of HFCS, or tested for mercury in their products.
Just as there are studies that call the nutritional character of HFCS into question, there are studies that argue moderate consumption does not harm. “There is however, only limited evidence that fructose per se, when consumed in moderate amounts, has deleterious effects,” researchers in Switzerland reported last December in the journal Nutrition.
Nevertheless, consumers balked. Consumer groups preached outright abstention, and increasingly health-conscious Americans began weaning themselves from this much-maligned sweetener. Within the last two years, Hunt’s Ketchup, Wheat Thins, Gatorade and other products have publicly divorced themselves from the additive, reformulating with old-fashioned cane and beet sugar. PepsiCo and Mountain Dew have introduced limited runs of soft drinks sans HFCS (likely a marketing test), and some Costco’s now carry the Mexican concoction of Coca Cola (which has no HFCS). Since about 70 percent of all the corn syrup consumed domestically is delivered in soft drinks, according to a study published June 5 in World Journal of Diabetes, corn refiners are duly concerned.
Thus the FDA petition, which would allow refiners and packagers to distance themselves from HFCS’s reputation, without changing the product itself.
Given HFCS’s besmirched name, consumers might wonder why the refining industry doesn’t just ditch the additive altogether. The answer lies in a host of reasons: it costs less than half the price of refining sugar from cane or beets; it’s reputedly sweeter than those sugars; it lengthens the shelf life of products; and it’s a liquid and therefore easier to blend with food. Plus, the corn industry is bolstered by something that cane and beet refiners just can’t compete with—huge federal subsidies.
Corn subsidies hit a record high in 2000, with $22.9 billion paid to U.S. farmers as a whole, according to the Environmental Working Group based in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the second highest year of corn production in U.S. history, taxpayers doled out $10.1 billion. According to the refiners association, 27 mills in the U.S. grind an average of 1.6 billion bushels annually (based on USDA 2009 data). Most of it is field corn and therefore inedible. To quote Ian Cheney, coproducer of the film King Corn, as he munches an ear of field corn on screen in the 2007 indie documentary, “It’s disgusting! It tastes like chalk!”
Pigs, chickens and cows don’t seem to mind the flavor, which is why about 55 percent of all the corn harvested in the U.S. winds up as animal feed, according to the USDA. Roughly 4.1 percent of the remainder is refined into HFCS. “A 2-liter bottle of soda contains about 15 ounces of corn in the form of high-fructose corn syrup,” the USDA reports.
Clearly, there’s a lot at stake. To show the FDA and the American public it means business, that it will not stand idly by and allow a bunch of hype and speculation to sway the minds of impressionable consumers, the refiners association has hired a cast of ethnically diverse, svelte young women and apple-cheeked young men to debate each other in TV commercials and on YouTube. One ad features a nay saying Caucasian mom who challenges the parenting skills of a cheery young Black woman as the latter pours a raspberry-colored slurry into a glass, at a child’s birthday party.
“Don’t care what the kids eat, huh?” grimaces the pale party crasher in the button-up Oxford. Pastel balloons drift lazily over a picnic table. Hired children scamper, soft-focus in the background. “That has high fructose corn syrup in it! You know what they say about it!”
The indicted mom knits her brows and replies that she wants to know the clinical, academic and peer-reviewed foundations of the dour visitor’s party-pooping assertions. “Like whhhhhhhat?” she says.
The frump caves instantly and can’t remember a single reason why she ever doubted corn syrup. The triumphant corn industry spokeswoman offers the astute rebuttal. “Like it’s made from corn? It’s natural? And like sugar, it’s fine in moderation?”
“Luuuuv that top!” The defeated, cosmetically challenged woman cries.
Cheney and Curt Ellis (Ellis was coproducer for King Corn) spoofed the ad on YouTube. The two hunker by a corn field, Cheney romancing a cigarette. Ellis looks grim. Cheney kindly offers a smoke to Ellis, who mumbles, “You know what they say about tobacco!”
“What?” Cheney lunges. “That it’s an American agricultural product? Helps keep the weight off? And, like table sugar, it’s fine in moderation?”
Thirty-two seconds into the parody, Ellis is toking away. A convert. If YouTube is any measure of ad-campaign success, the syrup lobby likely wants their money back. “Party” weighs in at 38,207 views. Cheney and Ellis’ lowbrow knock off has 67,446 hits.
Maybe CBS News is a more objective opinion pollster. CBS launched an online survey Sept. 15, 2010, asking visitors, “Are makers of high-fructose corn syrup trying to deceive consumers by renaming the sweetener ‘corn sugar?’” To date, 87 percent of respondents say yes, the corn refining industry is lying to them.
It hasn’t helped the sweetener’s reputation much that Robert Lustig, M.D., often cited as the national expert on child obesity, is touring the country, calling HFCS “dangerous.” Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco, says in a popular YouTube video (1,707,778 views to date), “My charge ... is to demonstrate that [manufactured] fructose is a poison.”
Marion Nestle, Ph.D., professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, argues, “Metabolically, fructose and sucrose are exactly the same. The problem is with how much sugar we eat, not the kind of sugar we eat.”
The Sugar Association’s lawsuit is another bitter pill for the syrup industry, but this isn’t the first time the corn refiners and the association have clashed. The Sugar Association, which represents manufacturers of cane and beet sugar, petitioned the FDA in 2006 to ban the use of the term “natural” for highly processed foods—not just those that contained artificial ingredients or additives. The refiners cried foul, arguing that the sugar industry’s petition was “a thinly veiled attempt to obtain a marketing advantage for sucrose over HFCS.”
There’s an implied admission in the refiners’ argument—that even they don’t see their product as natural. In order to extract a confection from corn, it first has to be beaten and drugged. Refiners start by separating cornstarch from the kernels, then carve it into shorter and shorter chains of sugars by attacking it with enzymes (glucoamylase, zylose isomerase, alpha-amylase).
Somewhere in between, refiners do all those alchemical, proprietary, and exacting things that nature, in her dirty lab just doesn’t do. Corn and beet sugar is a little easier extract (by mechanical crushing and boiling) but like corn refining, the process isn’t easily mistaken for the machinations of Mother Nature.
Neither industry operates without a cost to the environment—another reason to question whether corn refiners can, with any degree of accuracy or honesty, claim their product is “natural.”
That banner sales year of 2005 was also a black flag for the environment. It was the year Cargill, Inc., a member of the Corn Refiners Association, paid $16 million in penalties for repeated violations of the Clean Air Act. The EPA nailed Cargill for under-reporting an estimated 30,000 tons of pollution each year from its corn and oil-seed plants. The refiner agreed to pay another $3.5 million for environmental projects throughout the United States, after 10 states and four county governments joined the EPA suit.
“Cargill’s corn processing plants are significant sources of volatile organic compounds,” said the EPA in its settlement statement.
Archer Daniels Midland Company (also a member of the Corn Refiners Association) had earlier reached a settlement in 2003 with the EPA, estimating it would invest $340 million in “capital improvements” over the next 10 years to cut 63,000 tons of air pollution from 52 grain-refining plants in 16 states. Five years later, March 5, 2008, the ag giant plead guilty to a series of Clean Water Act violations at its Chattanooga, Tenn., facility, paying $100,000 in fines and another $75,000 in re mediation under the terms of a plea bargain entered in U.S. District Court.
In none of the foregoing suits was “nature” indicted as an accomplice.
The FDA may take another year before acting on the refiners’ petition, say various sources. The agency already has a definition for corn sugar; in agency documents it’s referred to as a substance “commonly known as dextrose.”
Joel Preston Smith is a freelance investigative journalist based in Portland, Ore.