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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Name Change or Not, Mercury Problem Found by Whistleblower Still Haunts HFCS

Food Integrity Campaign | October 6, 2010

A recent survey conducted by market research organization Mintel shows that 64 percent of American consumers (who responded to the survey) believe that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is “okay in moderation,” 35 percent say they “avoid HFCS as an ingredient,” and 46 percent cite “not enough info to know whether it’s harmful or not.” A “Boy am I confused!” option was not present, but it appears that confusion surrounding the effects of the product is, indeed, rampant.

Fortunately for us, the Corn Refiners Association is attempting to provide some much-needed “clarity” by petitioning the FDA to be next in the list of food name-changers (remember when dried plums were prunes?), and convert “high fructose corn syrup” to a simpler “corn sugar.” Seemingly, this shorter name intends to shed the “processed food” implication generated by more syllabic alternatives like “Enzymatically Altered Corn Glucose” (Michael Pollan’s suggestion), while connoting a deeper connection to regular old sugar.

Based on her research, GAP client and whistleblower Renee Dufault might choose to rename HFCS “the syrup which often contains low levels of the toxic chemical, mercury.” In her role as a researcher for the FDA, Dufault analyzed a number of food products that listed HFCS as either the first or second ingredient, and found — alarmingly — that each of the products contained traces of mercury. To ascertain the source, she sent untested HFCS samples to two external laboratories. Both confirmed that the HFCS alone did, in fact, contain low levels of mercury. When Dufault brought her findings to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), she was told to stop investigating the matter. Rather than remain silent, she left the FDA and, with GAP’s assistance, sought to submit her report to a peer-reviewed journal. A copy of that report can be found here.

Although HFCS has already received significant (and more well-known) criticism for its potential role in causing obesity, Dufault’s studies cast an even darker shadow on its less-than-wholesome image. Regardless of any name change, the presence of mercury in a food product certainly makes it less, not more, “natural” – a fact that conscious consumers should regard when considering products with HFCS.


Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.