We had the chance to talk with Audrae Erickson, the President of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) about their work in promoting corn products. The main members of this group are the major corn product producers, including Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Corn Products International, National Starch LLC, Penford Products, Roquette Armerica, and Tate and Lyle Ingredients, America.
While you won’t find it by itself at Stop and Shop, you will find HFCS in most sweetened beverages, as well as in many baked goods, where it is much easier to work with than granulated sugar.
Is most of your work associated with promoting High Fructose Corn Syrup? We deal with all the products made from corn, but as you might expect, a significant amount of our attention is spent on HFCS.
How long has HFCS been in common use? Since the late 1970s, but it came under scrutiny after Bray and Popkin published a letter to the editor of Am J Clin Nutr in March, 2004, suggesting that HFCS consumption may play a role in obesity. Popkin has since recanted this hypothesis, and a number of papers have disproven it.
Some critics have called HFCS “unnatural” and “full of chemicals.” The FDA, in 2008 agreed that HFCS can be labeled “natural,” because it contains no unnatural, synthetic or foreign ingredients. Certainly there are no chemicals in HFCS. The process of making HFCS from cornstarch is not dissimilar from the processes sugar and maple syrup go through. Of course, many common foods have historically gone through some processing, including cheese, beer and wine. HFCS is no different.
This column has in the past covered the unrefereed assertions of Dufault that mercury was to be found in foods sweetened with HFCS. Szwarc has pointed out that the trace amounts found in Dufault’s study were comparable to the ambient mercury levels in the soil and not of concern. We asked Erickson about this and she noted that they took this allegation seriously, and commissioned a study of mercury levels from all US HFCS plants.
The results of these measurements were sent to leading environmental mercury expert Woodhall Stopford of Duke University, who analyzed them and posted his analysis on his Duke website without consulting further with the Corn Refiners Association. The results were similar: only ambient levels of mercury were detected. Dufault has since issued a criticism of this study which you can read here.
It was noteworthy that throughout the interview, she referred to HFCS as “corn sugar,” the new moniker proposed by her organization. She said that corn sugar was the safest and most affordable sweetener available, and, of course, emphasized that it is nutritionally identical to sugar. While HFCS is commonly and preferentially used in the beverage industry, it can never be the only choice. For example powdered drink mixes will always be made with sugar, since HFCS is a syrup.
In terms of market share, she noted that there has been a slight decline in recent years, but that much of the decline in HFCS use can be attributed to changes in consumer drink preferences. More are choosing bottled water and fruit juices, for example.
HFCS remains somewhat cheaper to use in foods than sugar, partly, she noted, because of USDA sugar price supports.
There are several web sites that the CRA maintains:
- SweetSurprise.com, with scientific facts about HFCS
- Cornsugar.com, a site for consumers
- CornNaturally.com, with facts for growers and producers, and
- Corn.org, the overall association site.
All of these are, of course, represent the positions of this industry trade group, but in this rare case, the facts seem to be entirely on their side. HFCS or Corn Sugar is safe and is nutritionally identical to sugar.