The Issue of High Fructose Corn Syrup

My eloquent, if cynical, compatriot, Kate at The Accidental Hedonist has a post riffing on the recent NY Times article about our good friend and neighbor, high fructose corn syrup. I thought I would pick up the issue with her and examine it from my own perspective, as a little, you know, subversive dig on this fine and rainy Independance Day.

Why a dig? Well, what is more all-American than corn, and any product made from it? It is our native grain, a cultivated grass that cannot live without human intervention, a lifesaver to the Pilgrims and the backbone of many Native American diets.

So, what is my beef as a locavore with high fructose corn syrup, a home-grown sweetener if ever there was on, using our most patriotic of grains to produce a sugar that is cheaper to grow than sugar cane (which does not grow much in our continental US, and thus would have to be imported from Elsewhere), and comes from one of the most democratic of plants that can grow nearly anywhere? What exactly is my beef with high fructose corn syrup, hereafter known as HFCS?

The issue with HFCS is this–it is in nearly every processed food product out there in copious amounts.

The precipitious rise in total sugar consumption among Americans has more to do with eating processed foods that one does not think about having sugar in them–salad dressings, soups, tomato sauces, ketchup, bread and the like–than it does with Americans lacking “food discipline.” If you look at the statistics themselves, all taken from Marion Nestle’s book, What to Eat, and sourced by the author from the USDA, one notices a pattern emerging.

While total individual consumption of sweeteners increased among Americans from 1980 to 2004 from 120 lbs per capita to 142 pounds per capita, individual use of refined sugar (table sugar) -decreased- during the same span of years from 84 pounds per capita to 61 pounds per capita. The average individual consumption of HFCS, however, more than doubled between 1980 and 2004–going from a mere 35 pounds to 78 pounds per capita.

What happened? Did Americans dump out our sugar bowls and install pitchers of HFCS on our tables? No.

No, what happened was, the use of table sugar, meaning the stuff that we add to food ourselves, dropped, because Americans had taken heed to warnings that refined sugar was not so good for us from health professionals in the media. But if that is the case, how did we start eating so much HFCS, if we are lowering our own use of added sugars?

The answer is this, and it is quite simple: Americans are not themselves adding more sugar to their diets–it is being added to their diets by food processors.

My aim is not to lay all of the blame on the food processors and to vilify them as a group. Americans still have personal responsibility in their dietary choices, one of which I will harp upon quite readily–Americans’ consumption of soda, which is pretty much nothing but HFCS, water and flavorings, has also sky-rocketed. Anyone with three quarters of a brain should know that soda is not a healthy beverage for anyone, much less children who are now more apt to drink soda than milk. (In 1975, each American typically drank 27 gallons of soda per year; in 2005, that amount has doubled to 54 gallons. Thirty years ago, American boys drank twice as much milk as soda. Now, the statistics are reversed–boys drink twice as much soda as milk. These statistics are from Eric Schlosser’s new book, Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food, which is aimed at children.)

My goal is to point out that American consumers can hardly be held completely to blame for the obesity and diabetes epidemic when food processors have been adding large amounts of HFCS to most processed foods for years, including foods that one does not think about being sweet or containing any kind of sugar. One cannot avoid what one does not know exists. I think of HFCS as a “stealth” sweetener, because it is in so many foods that the average shopper would not think to look for it in, in large part because it serves a purpose other than sweetening foods. It is, like all sugars, hydroscopic (allthough HFCS is particularly hydroscopic) meaning it draws moisture from the air into the food product, thus keeping it softer, less dry, and tasting and feeling more fresh.

Unless the average American knows anything about the hydroscopic properties of sugars, they wouldn’t think to look for HFCS in non-sweet yeast breads, rolls and crackers, where it is used basically as a preservative.

And don’t start with me on “they should just read food labels” spiel. Yes, they should. But, how many harried Moms and Dads out there doing shopping in between work and home have a chance to do that? And why should they think to -look- for sugar of any sort in food items that are not normally thought of as sweet, such as jarred spaghetti sauce, unless they have -heard- that such items have high amounts of sugar added to them? It is not a logical assumption that one is going to find HFCS in one’s spaghetti sauce, unless one knows a decent amount about food processing in general, and let’s be real here–most people don’t know these things.

And yes, I -know- that the solution is for people to read labels, cut down on processed food, eat more whole foods cooked at home, and stop drinking soda, but for many time pressed individuals who do not know how to cook, this is all easier said than done.

The fact is that the more information that is out there about HFCS and how much of it is in processed food, the more chance there is that individuals and families will get the clue that they are more sugar than they think they are, which is helping to cause the massive amounts of obesity and diabetes we are seeing around the country, and might try and do something about it in their own lives.

But without good information getting out there, without the media of all types–from informal media like blogs to newspapers to television to radio to books–talking about HFCS, people are not going to be getting the information they need to make any sort of wise decisions.

One of the best dietary decisions an individual or family can make is to cut out drinking soda completely from their diets–sodas are nothing but empty calories, and can really add a great many calories to a daily diet very quickly. This, of course, leads to weight gain. In my very own experience, after I quit habilutally drinking soda as my main drink of choice (now it is water or unsweetened tea or coffee), I lost four dress sizes within a year and have stayed pretty steadily at the same size since. I not only look better, but I feel better.

Another good dietary choice is to try and cut back on processed foods, especially those with large amounts of HFCS–such as ready to eat cereals and other obviously sweetened products. But, even if one just learns to read labels habitually, a shopper can make a better choice in processed foods like spaghetti sauces, salad dressings and breads–while HFCS is used in many brands of these products, they are not in -all- brands. HFCS -can- be avoided, if a shopper knows to avoid it in the first place.

What I would like to see is some food processors cutting back on the use of HFCS in their products, but I figure that is a bit pie-in-the-sky. It is too easy to use in remedy of various processing ills, and it is too cheap, thanks to government subsidies keeping prices artificially low.

So, there it is, folks–my non-patriotic, cranky diatribe about our very own American corn-based sweetener and what I think is wrong with it.

Happy Independance Day.

17 Comments

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  1. Pretty much the facts.

    Comment by tanna — July 4, 2006 #

  2. I agree with your rant against processed foods and soda’s in particular. I also agree that sweeteners are in all kinds of places where you do not expect them. But that has nothing to do with HFCS per se. Where I live (the Netherlands), HFCS is virtually unknown. Sugar beets are the state sponsored crops here, so sugar we eat. And sugar is in everything you name, in ketchup and pasta sauces and pita breads. We do not eat any HFCS, yet we also face an obesity epidemic. The problem is not HFCS, the problem is the enormous amounts of nutrient-less calories that is a disaster to our health.

    Comment by Helena — July 4, 2006 #

  3. I have been so frustrated lately with attempting to buy food from the grocery store. Even my local Co-op is filled with products that contain HFCS, palm kernel oil (which is all saturated fat and is causing massive deforestation and erosion leading to the destruction of much marine life in Indonesia & Malaysia), and plenty of other nasties that I don’t want in my food. It’s getting to the point where I feel like I can’t even trust my local farmers market, where I have to assume that if they don’t advertise that they are organic that they are using god knows what on their crops.

    I say all this because your mention of the harried parents who don’t have time to read labels struck a chord with me. It occurred to me that even if they did take the time to read the labels, there is no gurantee that they would be able to find ANYthing in their local grocery store that doesn’t have some foul ingredient to avoid. Even fresh produce that is organic (I’m thinking a place like Whole Foodds now) could have shipped it in from an ungodly distance or have purchased it from an industrial organic farm, which is ALMOST just as bad as purchasing any ole regular produce. So how screwed is someone like my parents, who live in a town that doesn’t even have a co-op much less a farmers market, when I can’t even find good, safe food to eat in a progressive city like Seattle?

    (just venting some frustration)

    Comment by Benjamin — July 4, 2006 #

  4. Has anyone thought of compiling a list of products that contain little to no HFCS? It’d be a hell of a research project, to be sure, but useful, and not impossible given plenty of volunteer support. The same could be done with palm kernel oils, potentially toxic preservatives/colorings, or any other food additive of concern. Perhaps a wiki?

    Comment by Sibyl — July 4, 2006 #

  5. I can’t say I’m very good at avoiding soda, but I do know that since I’ve been making a sincere effort to cook from scratch, my, er, sugar-related health problems have dramatically abated. Mind, I’m also a compulsive label-reader the past few years, but aside from things like soy sauce and the like, I try not to buy much pre-mixed food.

    Baking my own bread is not something I’m up to just yet, but we don’t eat much bread in my household.

    Comment by Mel — July 4, 2006 #

  6. Bread’s a tricky one. The mister and I do read labels, and so far we’ve found only one or two types of bread at our regular grocery store that don’t include HFCS. (As one would expect, we have better luck at Whole Foods.) There are a few types of Pepperidge Farms breads that don’t use it, but not all.

    Comment by Bomboniera — July 5, 2006 #

  7. This is a good start, but there’s more to this than reading ingredients. For example, the corn of today has been altered more than many other food crops and would not be recognizable to those who ate it 600 years ago. Also, it is one of The Big Four GMO crops (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, soy), a fact which was highlighted by the massive die-off of Monarch butterflies, poisoned by its now deadly pollen (one GM for corn incorporates pesticides into every cell of the plant–pesticides which cannot be washed off).

    Furthermore, the amount of processing corn goes through in order to produce HFCS is extreme. It makes soy milk look natural, by comparison. Who can say, definitively, how the body deals with these kinds of substances? We know that it handles various sweeteners differently in their most plain form. Agave juice, for example, has a much lower glycemic index number than does cane juice.

    The issue of over-processed food is central to the issue of health and, in this case, obesity. And there’s lots more to it, as well.

    Chronic sleep deprivation (= less than 8 hours sleep/night) plays hell on blood sugar. A recent study demonstrated that those who got 4 or 6 hours per night produced 30% more insulin during the day. Chronic over-production of insuling leads to insulin resistance, weight gain, and, often, adult onset diabetes.

    Politics is part of this picture, too. Corn is an incredibly heavily subsidized crop, as is soy. Therefore, it’s necessary to come up with more ways to use them. I notice that health claims follow as part of marketing. Aveeno includes soy oils and proteins in their products now, though they are actually less skin-friendly than olive oil or oat products.

    Canola oil is another example of this last point. There is no such thing as a canola plant, the name comes from a broad acronym for Canadian Oil Association. Rapeseed oil is a fine lubricant for machines, and is a major crop for Canada. Synthetic lubricants dropped the bottom out of the rapeseed oil market and another use had to be found for the oil. Unfortunately, it was highly toxic to humans in its natural state, containing erucic acid. Genetic manipulation reduced the amount of erucic acid and increased the Omega 3 content. It’s still a less good fat than olive oil, but it’s been marketed as God’s gift to hearts.

    There’s more, but the point I guess I’m making is that simpler is better. Which is probably what you are saying.

    Thanks for letting me vent. My goal is not to solve the issue, but maybe to raise more questions?

    :)

    Alice

    Comment by Dot — July 5, 2006 #

  8. Just out of curiosity, do you know if “corn syrup” listed in the ingredients list is the same thing as HCFS?

    Comment by Hannah — July 5, 2006 #

  9. Well said Barbara! Very well said!Cooking our parents used to say is good for your skin,since it give you a mini facial with all the steam, little excercise to your legs and hands when you do stuff,and most of all, keeps a family in good shape.

    Comment by L.G — July 5, 2006 #

  10. Before anyone panics about Canola Oil, please read this Snopes article about it. It is not a GMO product, and rapeseed oil has been used as a cooking oil for centuries outside of the US.

    Comment by selena — July 5, 2006 #

  11. The Snopes article is correct in that the piece quoted is way blown out of proportion. However, reputable lipid biologists, like Dr. Mary Enig, have been opponents of human consumption of Canola oil (and some other vegetable-sourced oils) for decades. And, not for nothing, it’s worth mentioning that there have been NO long term human studies regarding consumption of Canola oil. Here are some quotes, followed by their citations, in brackets.

    1. From “The Oiling of America” by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon (which is really worth the read): Canola oil, processed from a hybrid form of rape seed, is particularly rich in fatty acids containing three double bonds and the shortening can contain as much as 50% trans fats. Trans fats of a particularly problematical form are also formed during the deodorization of canola oil, although they are not indicated on labels for the liquid oil. [12a. Researchers at the University of Florida at Gainsborough found trans levels as high as 4.6% in processed canola oil. (S. O'Keefe and others. Journal of Food Lipids1994;1:165-176.) The conversion of omega-3 fatty acids to trans fats can be prevented by certain careful processing methods. (JL Sebedio and others. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000 Feb;54(2):104-13.
    ]

    2. From “The Great Con-ola” by Dr. Enig and Sally Fallon. Please note that this quote describes the genetic manipulation the previous commentor states did not happen. Rapeseed oil was a monounsaturated oil that had been used extensively in many parts of the world, notably in China, Japan and India. It contains almost 60 percent monounsaturated fatty acids (compared to about 70 percent in olive oil). Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the mono-unsaturated fatty acids in rapeseed oil are erucic acid, a 22-carbon monounsaturated fatty acid that had been associated with Keshan’s disease, characterized by fibrotic lesions of the heart.

    In the late 1970s, using a technique of genetic manipulation involving seed splitting,2 [2. RK Downey. Genetic Control of Fatty Acid Biosnythesis in Rapeseed. Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society, 1964;41:475-478.] Canadian plant breeders came up with a variety of rapeseed that produced a monounsaturated oil low in 22-carbon erucic acid and high in 18-carbon oleic acid.

    The new oil referred to as LEAR oil, for Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed, was slow to catch on in the US. In 1986, Cargill announced the sale of LEAR oil seed to US farmers and provided LEAR oil processing at its Riverside, North Dakota plant but prices dropped and farmers took a hit. [3. Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society, December 1986;63(12):1510.]

    3. IBID Canadian researchers looked at LEAR oils again in 1997. They found that piglets fed milk replacement containing canola oil showed signs of vitamin E deficiency, even though the milk replacement contained adequate amounts of vitamin E.14 [14. FD Sauer and others. Additional vitamin E required in milk replacer diets that contain canola oil. Nutrition Research, 1997;17(2):259-269.] Piglets fed soybean oil-based milk replacement fortified with the same amount of vitamin E did not show an increased requirement for vitamin E. Vitamin E protects cell membranes against free radical damage and is vital to a healthy cardiovascular system.

    In a 1998 paper, the same research group reported that piglets fed canola oil suffered from a decrease in platelet count and an increase in platelet size.15 [15. JK Kramer and others. Hematological and lipid changes in newborn piglets fed milk-replacer diets containing erucic acid. Lipids, January 1998;33(1):1-10.] Bleeding time was longer in piglets fed both canola oil and rapeseed oil. These changes were mitigated by the addition of saturated fatty acids from either cocoa butter or coconut oil to the piglets’ diet. These results were confirmed in another study a year later. Canola oil was found to suppress the normal developmental increase in platelet count.16 [16. SM Iunis and RA Dyer. Dietary canola oil alters hematological indices and blood lipids in neonatal piglets fed formula. Journal of Nutrition, July 1999;129(7):1261-8.]

    Finally, studies carried out at the Health Research and Toxicology Research Divisions in Ottawa, Canada discovered that rats bred to have high blood pressure and proneness to stroke had shortened life-spans when fed canola oil as the sole source of fat.17 [17. WMN Ratnayake and others. Influence of Sources of Dietary Oils on the Life Span of Stroke-Prone Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats. Lipids, 2000;35(4):409-420.] The results of a later study suggested that the culprit was the sterol compounds in the oil, which “make the cell membrane more rigid” and contribute to the shortened life-span of the animals.18 [18. MN Wallsundera and others. Vegetable Oils High in Phytosterols Make Erythrocytes Less Deformable and Shorten the Life Span of Stroke-Prone Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats. Journal of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, May, 2000;130(5):1166-78]

    4. IBID These studies all point in the same direction — that canola oil is definitely not healthy for the cardiovascular system. Like rapeseed oil, its predecessor, canola oil is associated with fibrotic lesions of the heart. It also causes vitamin E deficiency, undesirable changes in the blood platelets and shortened life-span in stroke-prone rats when it was the only oil in the animals’ diet. Furthermore, it seems to retard growth, which is why the FDA does not allow the use of canola oil in infant formula.19 [19. Federal Register, 1985.]

    When saturated fats are added to the diet, the undesirable effects of canola oil are mitigated. Most interesting of all is the fact that many studies show that the problems with canola oil are not related to the content of erucic acid, but more with the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of saturated fats.

    5. IBID Rapeseed oil has been used in China, Japan and India for thousands of years. In areas where there is a selenium deficiency, use of rapeseed oil has been associated with a high incidence of fibrotic lesions of the heart, called Keshan’s disease.20 [20. OA Levander and MA Beck. Selenium and viral virulence. British Medical Bulletin, 1999;55(3):528-33.] The animal studies carried out over the past twenty years suggest that when rapeseed oil is used in impoverished human diets, without adequately saturated fats from ghee, coconut oil or lard, then the deleterious effects are magnified.

    6. IBID Even the dogma that monounsaturated fatty acids are good for the heart is at risk. According to a 1998 report, mice fed a diet containing monounsaturated fats were more likely to develop atherosclerosis than mice fed a diet containing saturated fat.29 [29. LL Rudel and others. Dietary monounsaturated fatty acids promote aortic atherosclerosis in LDL-receptor-null, human ApoB100-overexpressing transgenic mice. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, November 1998;18(11):1818-27.] In fact, the mice fed monounsaturated fats were even more prone to heart disease than those fed polyunsaturated fatty acids.

    This means that the type of diet recommended in books like The Omega Diet — low in protective saturates, bolstered with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and relying on monounsaturated fatty acids, whether from olive or canola oil, for the majority of fat calories — may actually contribute to heart disease. Such diets have been presented with great marketing finesse, but we need to recognize them for what they are — payola for the food companies and con-ola for the public.

    If this is interesting to you, the book “Know Your Fats” by Mary Enig is quite accessible and well worth the read. Since reading it, I’ve switched my use of fats dramatically and can share that my blood pressure is 90/60, my cholesterol is 135, and my resting pulse is 53-55. I eat beef, pork, lamb, use lard, tallow, butter, ghee, full fat raw milk, as well as olive oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil.

    In this day and age, and with the food pyramid largely debunked, it’s naive to think that money and politics do not play into the marketing of food. They simply do.

    Comment by Dot — July 5, 2006 #

  12. I am not surprised to see so many thoughtful, venting and frustrated comments here–HFCS is one of those topics that tends to bring out the voice in people. I value what everyone here has had to say.

    And yes, I agree, I am frustrated, too. Between avoiding transfats and HFCS, it is hard to buy something processed without catching something icky in either direction! And people wonder why I cook all the time…sure I like to, but it is also because I don’t like processed foods.

    Comment by Barbara — July 5, 2006 #

  13. I always thought I ate a healthful diet, and I’ve never carried more than about 10 extra pounds, so I was shocked when I developed diabetes in my early 30s. The culprit? Probably HFCS.

    Comment by Cindy — July 6, 2006 #

  14. Mary Enig is not a reputable biologist. Reputable scientists do research and publish about that in peer reviewed magazines. Mary Enig does not.

    There may have been no long term studies done on canola oil, the fact that the longest living people on earth (Okinawans) cook their food in canola oil should convey the message that it cannot be THAT bad or dangerous. Also, the well designed Lyon Heart study used canola oil with very good results on health and mortality.

    All the downsides about HFCS in these comments are true for regular sugar. Sugar beets are nothing like the vegetables people used to eat centuries ago, it is very processed and it raises your blood sugar.

    Comment by Helena — July 7, 2006 #

  15. Well, I don’t know if it’s too late to respond to this very interesting page from early July on HFCS but I feel compelled to make several comments.

    I enjoyed reading the initial post by Barbara and the responses, especially Dot’s. I feel compelled to respond, though, to Helena’s charge that “Mary Enig is not a reputable biologist”.

    Dr Enig is the lady who, as a graduate student in the early 1970s, was the ONLY person to claim that trans fats were dangerous and should be eliminated from foods. She did much original research all through the 1970s and 1980s, with very little funding, on this and other dietary fats. She is well published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and I for one, am very grateful she has decided to publish beyond the scientific world as well, otherwise much of her ground-breaking research would not be available to the lay public.

    Dr Enig continued to claim, all through the 1980s that trans fats were dangerous and it is only very recently, in the 1990s, that other researchers and nutritionists began to take her work seriously and take a hard look at trans fats. As I’m sure everyone has noticed by now, it’s not possible to go grocery shopping anymore without seeing dozens of products proudly proclaming “Zero Trans Fats” or some such.

    I think Dr Enig’s reputation speaks for herself. BTW she is is a lipids biochemist, not a biologist. One place to find many articles written for the general public is at a organization founded by Dr Enig and Sally Fallon, the Weston A Price Foundation: http://www.westonaprice.org

    Comment by Hillary — August 30, 2006 #

  16. I have to question the credence of this information since the writer incorrectly stated that the University of Florida is in Gainsboro not Gainesville. Makes me wonder what else is incorrect in their findings.

    Comment by Donna — May 13, 2007 #

  17. On editorial matters and questioning Enig’s reputation:

    1. Re remarks by Donna on May 13, 2007. Mary Enig used the word “Gainsborough”, not “Gainsboro” [see Dot's contribution on July 5, 2006], but Donna charged that she did. I am impelled to paraphrase Donna:

    “I have to question the credence of Donna since she incorrectly stated Enig had said that the University of Florida is in Gainsboro [sic] not Gainesville. Makes me wonder what else is incorrect in Donna’s other writings.”

    2. Cindy, are you an scientist?

    We who are (or who have been) would not (almost never) refer to “peer reviewed magazines”. You did. (Remarks by you on July 6, 2006.) We usually say “journals” or “journal articles” that are peer-reviewed.

    Discovering this error, Donna would probably say: “I have to question the credence of [Cindy]“. BTW, I reckon that you regularly contribute to magazines that are reviewed by your peers.

    Peace

    Comment by Paul — September 13, 2007 #

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