It’s hard out there for the Corn Refiners Association; they just can’t seem to catch a break. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), their trademark product, has faced a relentless barrage of criticism, both fair and unfair. It has been tagged by clinicians, nutritionists and food bloggers as a primary culprit in America’s obesity epidemic and a contributor to Type II diabetes. And a growing number of consumers just plain don’t like it.
Then, last week, a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Health found detectable levels of mercury, a known neurotoxin, in nine of 20 samples of HFCS. A second study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that mercury appeared as a secret ingredient in nearly a third of 55 brand-name foods, most commonly in products that also contained HFCS.
But the CRA hasn’t taken any of this bad news lying down. They were quick to fire back a press release calling the mercury study “outdated,” and for months they have been bankrolling a $20-30 million dollar publicity campaign called “Sweet Surprise,” which cheerily informs us that, “Like table sugar, high fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation.”
We are familiar with “moderation” as the long-time mantra of the self-help set, but it has also become a red flag in the press releases and talking points of corporations hawking toxicity. Tobacco was once okay in moderation, too, as was exposure to DDT, the notorious antagonist of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To this day, as it turns out, DDT is classified as “moderately toxic” by the US National Toxicological Program and “moderately hazardous” by the World Health Organization.
The mercury found in the HFCS study was measured in parts per trillion––that’s a modest dose, even for a toxin known to be unsafe in any quantity. It’s the unfortunate truth that we’re exposed to environmental mercury from many sources just by walking out our front door. But it’s also true that the mercury found in the HFCS samples didn’t need to be there at all. It likely originated from an outdated process for manufacturing caustic soda (bet you didn’t know you were consuming that in your favorite drink), one of the components used in processing HFCS.
The reminder that America’s food and beverage manufacturers keep caustic soda, acids, and genetically modified enzymes in their cupboards brought back the experience of attempting to make our own home-brewed HFCS when filming the documentary King Corn. The experiment turned out okay––no one got hurt, and we managed to produce a few ounces of a surprisingly sweet liquid.
But we were left with the sad realization that so much of what we eat in the industrialized food economy was designed and produced in something much more like a laboratory than a kitchen. There’s something distinctly unappetizing about food ingredients whose labels advise you to wear goggles and gloves when you handle them.
Unless, of course, you enjoy them in moderation.
Hannah Major-Monfried is a writer in New York City. She most recently served as head speechwriter for Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.