Food In The News: Is Organic Cane Sugar a Health Food And Other Burning Questions

Since When Is Cane Sugar A Health Food? Zak sent me a link to an extremely interesting NY Times article where I learned that since consumers have decided that high fructose corn syrup is the devil that has caused rampant obesity in the United States (and yes, it may be -one- factor among -many- involved in the obesity problem–but by no means should anyone believe it is the sole cause), cane sugar is being used as an ingredient in many processed foods, and this fact is being used as a marketing tool.

Which is fine–there are people who want to avoid HFCS, and that is great, so labeling the absence of it and the presence of cane sugar is fine. However, calling cane sugar a “healthy alternative” to HFCS is stretching the truth just a wee bit.

Oh, hell, let’s just say it is patent bull crap. Sugar is still not good for you in large quantities, no matter whether it comes from sugar cane, beets or corn. Cane sugar may be more cleanly metabolized by our bodies, but it is still sugar, and frankly, I don’t think it needs to be in every brand of spaghetti sauce, salad dressing and bread in copious amounts on the grocery store shelf.

Mark Bittman Says: Eat Better Food, Don’t Worry About Organic I like Mark Bittman. Even when I disagree with him, I like him–he just has such a sensible, no-nonsense way of putting his opinions that I respect and enjoy. In his recent article in the NY Times, Eating Food That’s Better For You, Organic Or Not, he points out that he would rather see Americans eating more conventionally or organically grown fruits and vegetables and other whole, minimally processed foods than have them get the idea that an organic Oreo cookie is somehow healthier than a regular Oreo cookie.

And that is a point that I have found over and over in talking with people who are not in my immediate circle of friends. A lot of people in this country have the idea that the USDA Organic label on a package of cookies, crackers or cereal instantly imbues that particular food with immediate healthy to eat status, which is just not true. “Organic” does not necessarily equate with “healthy,” “sustainable,” or “local,” when it comes to food. All it means is that the food is grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, that it has not been treated with sewage sludge and that it has been processed with minimal artificial ingredients and chemicals. That’s it.

As Bittman points out, it can be organically grown in China, then shipped to the United States, which is still not very sustainable. And as he quotes author and nutritionist Marion Nestle, “Organic junk food is still junk food.”

So, as he says, let’s all get off our duffs and eat more vegetables and fruits and leave the organic Oreos to themselves.

Will The Food Revolution Be Televised? If you get the reference to the subhead for this bit, you get a cookie, because you win extra points for obscure cultural awareness. Zak, you don’t count, because I know you know what I am talking about.

Once again, we come to a NY Times article, Is a Food Revolution Now In Season? to see that all of those foodie activists and authors I have been reading and writing about for years: Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Marion Nestle, thrilled to finally have their voices heard by the new presidential administration. So thrilled in fact, that they are pushing their agenda for a better, healthier food system for the United States, that they are heading to Washington, writing letters, meeting with Tom Vilsack, our new Secretary of Agriculture, and First Lady Michelle Obama, armed with copies of the film, Food, Inc.

Of course, the change these activists want will not come as fast as they want, but it appears that even among farm-state Senators, copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma are being seen tucked in briefcases and under arms.

That leads me to think that change is coming–faster than I expected, but still slowly.

And that is fine–as any ecologist or gardener will tell you, slow, steady change is the way natural systems work.

Fast change is what is likely to be unsustainable and not stick. Slow change is the way to work toward long-term goals.


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  1. I’d like to point out, however, that sodas made with cane sugar instead of HFCS taste sooooo much better! And I’m thrilled to see them making a comeback. (And I’m in complete agreement with everything on this post.)

    Comment by Kristi — March 23, 2009 #

  2. I loved this article. Was meaning to send you the link, but I see you got there ahead of me! Personally, I’d much rather people just focus on eating real, tasty food, made from whole foods, more vegies and fruits, and worry less about food’s pedigree or labeling. An organic, free trade donut is still a donut.

    Comment by Diane — March 23, 2009 #

  3. Your subhead made me laugh out loud, mostly because I couldn’t decide whether you were referencing Gil Scott Heron’s song or the book by Sandor Ellix Katz, which is in itself a reference to the song (and one of my favorite book titles ever!)

    I always appreciate your take on food politics πŸ™‚

    Comment by jennifer — March 23, 2009 #

  4. I like to read and try your recipes, but these political writings are my favorite parts of your blog. Please keep it up.

    Comment by sgt pepper — March 23, 2009 #

  5. Jennifer–you win the prize, whatever it is–because I was referencing BOTH of them!

    Thank you, Sgt. I sometimes get discouraged when I offend some reader or another with my essays or writings on food politics–most of the time, I say to myself that I shouldn’t worry–you can’t please everyone all the time, so instead, I just resolve to be myself and not worry over it.

    So that is what I do.

    Comment by Barbara — March 23, 2009 #

  6. As I read that article in the NY Times this afternoon, I kept thinking of the low-fat/no-fat craze where eating a box of devil’s food cake cookies was fine because “hey! there’s no fat!”. We still need to use common sense and think a bit about what we’re eating, whatever the label.

    Comment by Kate Nolan — March 23, 2009 #

  7. Just a bit off-topic, but health and sugar related:

    Is Walmart’s Great Value sugar GMO? Do roaches eat GMO sugar, or other GMO foods?

    Well back to corn syrup. I’m not believing that big business is decreasing corn syrup in food because of concerns for our health. I think it’s because they can make more money off the ethanol market, and are just spinning the reason for buzz-phrase marketing purposes.

    Comment by Shreela — March 23, 2009 #

  8. If if comes in a brightly colored package, don’t eat it. Real food doesn’t need a label for you to know what it is.

    Comment by Janet — March 24, 2009 #

  9. “Denial” isn’t a river in Egypt. A place I used to work at, there was a 10 minute argument between “woman eating 85% fat free snack” and “dude who tried to tell her that the label meant that it was 15% fat”. She denied flatly that they could be 15% fat, because they were 85% “fat free”…

    Comment by Stuart Carter — March 24, 2009 #

  10. While you’re talking about food ethics (a subject that fascinates me in all its permutations), you may be interested in this article from Gourmet magazine.

    Comment by Christy — March 24, 2009 #

  11. If if comes in a brightly colored package, don’t eat it.

    Damn. I was enjoying that banana. πŸ™‚

    Excellent essay, Barbara. For months now I have been banging my head on my keyboard in frustration at the “HFCS is teh eeeeeevol” crowd who won’t accept that sugar is sugar. If you’re drinking full-fat sodas every day, your pancreas isn’t going to care that much whether those glucose and fructose molecules are stuck together or split up.

    However, considering that I was arguing “HFCS is in all American processed foods, but if you outlaw HFCS tomorrow then the manufacturers will simply replace it with sugar, like in processed foods everywhere else in the world”, I can at least feel vindicated.

    Comment by Fernmonkey — March 24, 2009 #

  12. to Fernmonkey: I would have no problem with HFCS being replaced with sugar! At least cane sugar isn’t manufactured with Frankenmolecules, doesn’t take a food stuff out of the food chain, and the consequences of abuse are well known. Plus, HFCS has an artifically low price due to discriminatory anti-sugar tariffs which should be removed.

    Comment by Stuart Carter — March 24, 2009 #

  13. having grown up within walking distance of cane fields (and taking full advantage of it running through them with my brothers cutting down the occasional cane to snack on) I do consider sugar cane to be a natural food as opposed to processed corn syrup. I think it is hard to make an argument either way in regards to sustainability, but it is clear that using a staple grain food as an ingredient is a negative when it comes to global food sourcing

    Comment by Eugenio — March 24, 2009 #

  14. Your brain is a good brain.

    That is, it’s nice to read clear and sensible thoughts about what constitutes healthy food.

    Comment by Gretchen — March 29, 2009 #

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