by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Corn

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Sep 21 2011

Corn Refiners Association to FDA: we will call HFCS “corn sugar” whether you like it or not

 I worry a lot about the ability of the FDA to set limits on the excess marketing practices of food companies.  The latest cause for worry is the seemingly trivial fuss over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

HFCS is not especially high in fructose (its fructose content is about the same as that of table sugar) but the term has gotten a bad reputation and food companies have begun to replace this sweetener with table sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association, the trade association that protects the interests of the makers of HFCS thinks it can solve that problem by getting the FDA to allow a name change from HFCS to “corn sugar” (see my previous comments on this issue).  The FDA has this request under consideration. 

In the meantime, the Corn Refiners are using “corn sugar” in advertisements on two websites, cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the FDA is taking a dim view of this behavior.   In a letter seen by the AP (but which I cannot find on the FDA website), the FDA has asked the Corn Refiners to cease and desist using “corn sugar” until the term receives regulatory approval.  

According to the AP account, which I have been unable to verify, the FDA:

Has no regulatory control over the corn association’s advertising because it is not selling a product but promoting an industry. The federal agency can prosecute companies that incorrectly label ingredients and [FDA official Barbara] Schneeman wrote that the FDA may launch enforcement action against food companies listing high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.”

The AP also said that internal FDA documents “indicate high-level skepticism” over the proposed name change. 

This, no doubt, is because “corn sugar” already exists as a regulatory term for dextrose which, in turn, is another name for the sugar, glucose, derived from corn. 

The AP says:

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, wrote in an internal email that a previous attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just “corn syrup” was misleading, could have robbed consumers of important information and would invite ridicule.  “It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it,” Taylor told colleagues in an email dated March 15, 2010.

Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar is about marketing, not public health. If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.

Jan 6 2011

Wikileaks plays food politics: US vs. EU agbiotech policies

I’m still catching up on what happened during the weeks I was out of Internet contact, so I’ve only just heard about the Wikileaked diplomatic cable about U.S. food biotechnology policies.

In December 2007, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Craig Robert Stapleton, wrote the White House to demand retaliation against European Union countries that refused to allow import of genetically modified (GM) corn from the United States.

Ambassador Stapleton’s confidential memo of December 14, 2007  explained that the French government was attempting to

circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest”…. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.  In fact, the pro-biotech side in France — including within the farm union — have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.

…France’s new “High Authority” on agricultural biotech is designed to roll back established science-based decision making….The draft biotech law submitted to the National Assembly and
the Senate for urgent consideration…would make farmers and seed companies legally liable for pollen drift and sets the stage for inordinately large cropping distances. The publication of a registry identifying cultivation of GMOs at the parcel level may be the most significant measure given the propensity for activists to destroy GMO crops in the field.

The Ambassador’s recommendation?

Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU….

Retaliation?  Against friends?  Even the Bush administration knew better.  The Obama administration also has not taken this advice.

The product at issue was a variety of Monsanto’s GM corn.   Could Monsanto have had anything to do with the Ambassador’s pointed interest in this matter?  Wikileaks: any chance for more documents on this matter?

Sep 20 2010

One more time: corn sugar chemistry

Thanks to alert reader Glen for pointing out that the FDA already has a regulation for Corn Sugar in the Code of Federal Regulations, under food substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  CFR Section 184.1857 reads:

(a) corn sugar (C6H12O6, CAS Reg. No. 50-99-7), commonly called D-glucose or dextrose, is the chemical [alpha]-D-glucopyranose. It occurs as the anhydrous or the monohydrate form and is produced by the complete hydrolysis of corn starch with safe and suitable acids or enzymes, followed by refinement and crystallization from the resulting hydrolysate.

(b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the Food Chemicals Codex, 3d Ed. (1981), pp. 97-98 under the heading “Dextrose….”

(c) In accordance with 184.1(b)(1), the ingredient is used in food with no limitation other than current good manufacturing practice.

The Corn Refiners have just petitioned the FDA to be allowed to use the name Corn Sugar to apply to both glucose/dextrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  But the existing definition seems to exclude HFCS.  While HFCS is about half glucose, it is also about half fructose, and its manufacture from corn starch requires one more enzyme.

A reminder about sugar chemistry:

  • Glucose is the sugar in blood, and dextrose is the name given to glucose produced from corn but biochemically they are identical.
  • Fructose is the principal sugar in fruit.  In fruit, it raises no issues because it is accompanied by nutrients and fiber.
  • Sucrose is table sugar.  It is a double sugar, containing one part each of glucose (50%) and fructose (50%), chemically bound together.  Enzymes in the intestine quickly and efficiently split sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed into the body as single sugars.
  • HFCS is made from corn starch.  It contains roughly equivalent amounts of glucose (45 to 58%) and fructose (42 to 55%).

HFCS raises several issues, health and otherwise:

  • Quantity: the U.S. food supply provides to every American (all ages) about 60 pounds of sucrose and another 60 pounds of HFCS each year.  This is way more than is good for health.  Sugars of any kind provide calories but no nutrients.
  • Fructose: increasing evidence suggests that the metabolism of fructose–which differs from that of glucose–is associated with abnormalities.  This means that it is best to reduce intake of fructose from table sugar as well as HFCS.
  • Farm subsidies: these go to large corn producers and have kept down the cost of HFCS relative to that of sucrose.  The use of corn to make ethanol has raised the relative price of HFCS.
  • Genetic modification: Most corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to resist insects or herbicides.

From a health standpoint, it makes no difference whether the sweetener is sucrose or HFCS.

As for agave sugar as a substitute: it can have much higher concentrations of fructose than either sucrose or HFCS but its labels do not give percentages so you have no way to know how much.

Given all this, what’s your guess about what the FDA will decide?

Sep 14 2010

Corn Refiners ask FDA to replace “HFCS” with “Corn Sugar”

The Corn Refiners Association is asking the FDA to allow a change in the name of their embattled sweetener from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to Corn Sugar.

Of course they want this change.  HFCS is the new trans fat.  Everyone thinks HFCS is poison.

For the record once again, HFCS is not poison.  It is just a mixture of glucose and fructose in almost the same proportions as table sugar, sucrose.

Mind you, I am not fond of the idea that Americans use 60 pounds of corn sweeteners per capita per year and another 60 pounds of table sugar, and I am not particularly eager to help the Corn Refiners sell more of their stuff.

But you can understand the Corn Refiners’ pain: food companies are getting rid of HFCS as fast as they can and replacing it with table sugar.

This move is driven not only by bad press, but also by the fact that the price differential has all but disappeared.  HFCS started out at one-third the cost of table sugar.  Growing corn to make alcohol changed all that.

Let’s give the Corn Refiners credit for calling a sugar a sugar.  I would prefer Corn Sugars (plural) to indicate that it is a mixture of glucose and fructose.  But as long as they don’t call it “natural,” the change is OK with me.

But I’m wondering if it’s too late.  Maybe anything with the word “corn” in it will be enough to turn people off?  According to the Associated Press, the Corn Refiners are already using Corn Sugar in their advertising, so we will soon find out.

Your thoughts?

Additional historical note: Thanks to a reader, candyprofessor.com, who is evidently a fount of information about such things, for this enlightening tidbit:

In the early 1900s, what we call “corn syrup” was sold as “glucose,” the chemical name for the type of sugar derived from corn starches. Food reformers pointed to the “glucose” in candy and claimed that candy was poisoned with “glue.”  So the corn producers lobbied to have “glucose” renamed “corn syrup.” Sounds like we’re coming around again full circle…now “corn syrup” is poison!

Updates, September 15: Tara Parker-Pope writes about this in the New York Times (and quotes me).  So does Michele Simon on her blog.  As usual, Simon says it like it is:

As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better….Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It’s like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

How, I wonder, will the Corn Refiners manage this one?  Not so easily, judging from readers’ comments.

Update, September 16: Fo0dNavigator.com reports that more than half of Americans surveyed will not buy products with HFCS.  Market researchers are advising food companies to get rid of it.

Jul 18 2010

USDA: Ethanol from corn yields “substantial” energy

I’m just getting around to reading an optimistic report from USDA about how much more energy we are getting from converting corn to ethanol. 

The report surveyed corn growers for the year 2005 and ethanol plants in 2008 and happily reports that energy yields are improving.  

Never mind that the mere thought of using food resources to feed cars rather than farm animals or people makes no sense from the standpoint of sustainability.   Early estimates of energy efficiency made it clear that it took almost as much—or, in fact, as much—energy to convert corn to ethanol as cold be obtained from the ethanol, and that the size of the energy yield depended on who was doing the estimating.   

This latest report says that “the net energy balance of corn ethanol has increased from 1.76 BTUs to 2.3 BTUs of required energy” since 2004.  If true,

Ethanol has made the transition from an energy sink, to a moderate net energy gain in the 1990s, to a substantial net energy gain in the present. And there are still prospects for improvement. Ethanol yields have increased by about 10 percent in the last 20 years, so proportionately less corn is required. In addition to refinements in ethanol technology, corn yields have increased by 39 percent over the last 20 years, requiring less land to produce ethanol.

I still think this is not a good idea.  A rational energy policy must develop sustainable sources, and corn is not one of them.

Nov 11 2008

Corn is in everything!

Investigators at the University of Hawaii have just analyzed nearly 500 samples of fast food for their content of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen.  These are not radioactive but do indicate whether a plant conducts its photosynthesis through what is called a C3 or C4 metabolic pathway.  Corn is a C4 crop.  The analysis shows that virtually all of the meat came from animals raised on corn.  The potatoes were typically fried in corn oil.  Corn, say the investigators, is the basis of fast food.  And virtually all fast food is raised or prepared the same way. 

Didn’t we know that?  Yes, but the technology used in these experiments is clever.  Michael Pollan discussed this kind of chemical evidence in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Although I do not think it was his intention, many readers came away with the idea that corn is poison.  It isn’t.   Corn is a perfectly reasonable food, especially when mixed with soybeans, and the mix works fine for fattening up cattle.  From the standpoint of nutrition and the environment, feeding cattle on grass would be ideal, but it may not always be practical. That’s why some forward thinking cattle producers are raising their animals on grass for as long as they can, and then doing a quick finish with corn and soybeans.

A more important issue may be corn subsidies. Cheap feed promotes industrial meat production, with all of its environmental and health implications.  CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as the Pew Commission said earlier this year, have truly dreadful effects on the environments of the communities in which they operate, are not healthy for animals, and overuse antibiotics, which affects human health.   Corn subsidies make CAFOs possible. 

We can argue about how much corn is OK, but I can’t think of any reason to exclude it from the diets of animals or humans.   Corn is a good source of calories and is about 10% protein.  Its oil is relatively unsaturated.  And high fructose corn sweeteners are an almost one-for-one substitute for sucrose. For humans in particular, fresh sweet corn in mid-summer is surely one of the great wonders of the universe.   As with so much else in nutrition, some corn is OK, but a lot may not be.

 

Aug 8 2008

FDA changes mind; says HFCS is natural after all

Try to get your mind around this one. To make high fructose corn syrup, it is necessary to (1) extract the starch from corn, (2) treat the starch with an enzyme to break it into glucose, and (3) treat the glucose with another enzyme to turn about half of it into fructose. OK class, explain how this can be considered natural? Answer: because the enzymes are fixed to a column and do not actually mix with the starch. Oh. So the FDA considers HFCS natural because Archer Daniels Midland and the Corn Refiners Association asked it to. Regime change, anyone?