Monday, June 23, 2008

The BS is as High as an Elephant's Eye

Rant alert!

The Corn Refiner's Association is taking out full page ads in many of today's newspapers (thanks, PJ, for the heads-up), running some television commercials, and giving us a website, sweet surprise, to inform us about many different kinds of sweeteners.  Why, you may ask, would a group that makes High Fructose Corn Syrup want you to learn about sugar, honey and aspartame?  This information allows one to create an interesting division between nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.  The corn refiners kindly give you information on those non-nutritive (in other words, non-caloric, sweeteners), but one suspects that the real goal is for the reader to lump HFCS, sugar and honey into the same wholesome category.   In this case, nutritive means calories only, not vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, or fiber.

For those who don't already know about this, meaning you haven't had a conversation with me in the last twelve months, high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener that was so inexpensive when it was introduced in a big way in the early 80s, it soon became a major part of most Americans' diets.  After reading about it in The Omnivore's Dilemma, I put myself on a HFCS free diet.  Like many people, I try to eat as many natural, non-processed foods as possible, so it wasn't all that difficult to keep high fructose corn syrup out of my diet in a big way, but it was difficult to keep it out of the shopping cart.  This is because it shows up almost everywhere.  So, while I might be planning a simple meal of barbecued chicken, potatoes and fresh vegetables, I would have to pass on a jar of barbecue sauce and on a premade salad dressing.  Needless to say, most sodas are out of the question.  Now that I've made a concerted effort to not buy anything with HFCS for an entire year, I thought I'd survey my kitchen:

I found it in Honeymade Graham Crackers, Greek Salad Dressing, corn syrup (even though corn syrup is different from HFCS, even corn syrup uses it as a sweetener) and a barbecue sauce.  Check your own kitchen out.  It's amazing where it turns up.  PJ found some in dried fruit!

So, how bad is the website?  I couldn't find any outright lies.  It's kind of the Fox News of websites in that it just leaves out important details that would give you a fair and balanced view of things. Here are some examples:
  1. The body metabolizes all sugars the same.  Maybe.  The jury is still kind of out on this one.  Some studies suggest that the higher fructose to sucrose ratio of HFCS causes difficulty for the body when it is processed by the body.  This information is left completely out.
  2. High Fructose Corn Syrup won't make you obese.  It is true that if you only ate HFCS and nothing else, you would die before you became obese, but the site fails to mention that there are much better ways to get nutrition, and that this country's obesity problem completely coincides with the introduction of HFCS into our diets.
  3. (My favorite)  HFCS is not less natural than sugar and honey because they all need processing.  Yes, they are all processed.  Honey is poured through a filter to remove impurities.  Sugar has some lime (not the fruit) added to the cane or beet juice in order to pull out some impurities and then it is filtered and solidified (this process goes back hundreds of years).  High Fructose Corn Syrup?  Too many steps to write about here, but it involves corn to cornstarch, then treatment with several enzymes, then carbon absorption and several evaporation steps.
  4. U.S. Food Manufacturers continued use of HFCS is based on the benefits it provides rather than its price relative to sugar.  Oh my!  This is probably as close as this site comes to a lie.  It is true that HFCS, because it is a liquid does keep foods moister and has some other benefits.  However, this is not why it is used in sodas, for example.  Up until very recently, farmers grew far, far more corn than the world needed.  The government would buy the excess and sometimes just let it rot.  At the same time, the government put tariffs on imported sugar.  So, HFCS was an answer to everyone's prayers.  Ignore the plight of the sugar growers (which is another sad story in itself), ignore that we could have used that excess corn land to grow other things (if you want to get sick, read the part in The Omnivore's Dilemma about how we are forcing the nation's cattle to eat corn when their stomachs are evolved to eat grass).  Ignore what growing nothing but corn in huge quantities does to the nation's farmland.  
Why this ad campaign now?  Well, I'm guessing that the high price of corn due to its use in ethanol is making HFCS rather close to sugar in price.  (And here is our next big ethical dilemma:  do we really want our farmland being used to literally fuel our cars instead of feeding the world?)  This, coupled with consumer interest in getting away from HFCS is probably making a lot of food manufacturers think twice about what they should be using to sweeten their foods, if they need to sweeten them at all.  Do we really need salad dressing to be sweet?  

By the way, lest you feel sympathy for the Corn Refiner's Association:  as far as I can tell, it consists of seven companies, not individuals, and those companies are involved in making cornstarch, dextrose and ethanol along with high fructose corn syrup.  I think if we all stop eating HFCS, they're going to be okay.

1 comment:

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, I'm waiting for the rant. What you wrote is well-reasoned, logical, and concise.

As you know, I've been avoiding HFCS for years, basically because Men's Health magazine told me to. If I find some of their articles about the link between HFCS and obesity I'll bring them to you (though you might find them on as well). HFCS does show up in surprising places -- I was actually really angry to find it in some dried fruit, which I had been throwing in the cart without thought until one day it occurred to me to check the ingredients. Everything has to be bland and sweet in the American diet. I realize there is comfort in having a taste you can count on, but part of living with nature is that sometimes the fruit is sweet and ripe and sometimes it's not. I guess it's part of that brain-dead American optimism that insists on removing unpleasant and unexpected things from sight.