HFCS, a gloppy monster

I have to say that I was thrilled to see this headline in the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle: “High fructose corn syrup cut from Hunt’s recipe.”

I’m not against sweet things. Sugar cane, sugar beet, maple syrup, corn syrup, honey, even stevia – if it’s extracted straight from a plant is all fair game to me. If it sounds like it came straight from a laboratory – like saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose – it falls in my ICK column.

But high fructose corn syrup wasn’t on my radar the dozen or so years ago when LL’s high triglycerides made me look at the meals and snacks I was preparing and at ways to lower the numbers through diet. That’s when I found articles linking HFCS with high triglycerides. This is how: a sucrose molecule – like in regular table sugar – can be broken down to one molecule of glucose per one molecule of fructose. HFCS is processed to give each molecule more fructose than glucose. The way excess fructose is metabolized in the body sets off a series of chemical reactions that result in the creation of excess triglycerides. And excess triglycerides can cause heart disease by thickening the blood.

This did make sense to me. After all, water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. If you add an additional oxygen to the formula the result is hydrogen peroxide. Very different stuff, right?

(Now, because I’m not a scientist I tried to do a little research just now to cite a valid source proving my statement correct. I found I can say with complete certainty that quite a bit of money is spent by the corn lobby trying to defend HFCS. The American Medical Association tiptoes around the issue, saying that there isn’t enough evidence to prove it leads to obesity, but nothing about the heart disease tie-in.)

Common sense said it seemed an easy enough task to start by just cutting out foods and beverages with HFCS. And so I started actually reading the ingredient lists in the food I bought to find out what was in the stuff. I’m not going to name brands – you can go and look in the supermarket aisles for yourself – but I found high fructose corn syrup in literally almost EVERYTHING. The box juice and cookies I used to put in Kid One’s lunch, some of our favorite crackers and cereals, jars of pizza sauce, even wheat bread and yogurt (even yogurt!) all contained high-fructose corn syrup. Whether sweet or savory, almost all my so-called “convenience foods” – anything pre-made making it faster for me to slap together a quick meal – contained this extra lurking ingredient. The task wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be, but I did discover I have an inclination toward “real” food and away from “manufactured” food. Making changes wasn’t hard at at all – it just involved washing a few more dishes.

Since then, of course, I’ve learned more about HFCS. You can, too – read at least the first bit of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s DilemmaIndustrial Corn,  to learn about how we ended up with HFCS in the first place, then watch Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser’s Food Inc. to learn about issues and risks surrounding genetically modified crops and pesticides. Much of the corn used to make HFCS is genetically modified and sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers – the excess of which get into the watershed and help contribute to the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. (The original dead zone, not the one created now by million of gallons of oil spewing from the earth.) HFCS is just one ingredient, its existence the convergence of science, technology, commerce, farming, and politics that opens what seems like a black hole of repercussions on human and environmental health. Quite a big reaction from a few extra molecules of fructose, huh?

There are many things that seemed like a good idea at the time, and some have had more lasting consequences than others: DDT. Offshore drilling. Subprime mortgage loans. Broadway musicals based on The Vampire Lestat. Sitting here, it’s impossible to tell how the the sometimes-lethal combination of science and politics will weigh in in the future, either for our bodies or for the environment, intrinsically entwined. For now I just do this small bit to not blindly buy ingredients and meals, to continue knowing where our food comes from, and to model that behavior for the boys.

I appreciate that many companies are moving away from high fructose corn syrup in their foods. I wonder, though, was the decision was really due to customer demand, or is a more financially attractive ethanol market in the works for all that corn?

3 Comments

  1. “Making changes wasn’t hard at at all – it just involved washing a few more dishes.”

    Exactly! The expense (not just financial, but environmental and health-related) of eating “convenience food” is so extreme that it seems like a no-brainer to either learn to cook or return to cooking from real ingredients. It’s really not that hard!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for teh chemistry lesson!

    Our pediatrican said it to us years ago, “if you want sugar, eat sugar, just not too much.” The,, a few years later, our neurologist said, “If you want sugar, eat REAL sugar, just not too much.”

    On the corn issue, if you have not read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, it is a version of King Lear not to be missed.

    Reply
    • I haven’t read it yet, but it’s now officially on my summer reading list. Along with Moby Dick.)

      Reply

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