The High Fructose Corn Syrup Debate
If you live in the U.S., you've probably seen the television ads promoting the benign health effects and many benefits of high fructose corn syrup.
Sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, these ads feature a gleaming blonde upper middle class family talking about their concern that HFCS might be dangerous, and the online research that reassured them that the human body can't tell the difference between HFCS and ordinary table sugar.
The ad ends with the warm reassurance that corn sugar is sugar.
In other words, sugar is sugar and HFCS is sugar too, so chill, people, chill.
Have a soft drink and a cookie and stop fretting.
If you are anywhere near as cynical as I am, the very existence of this ad is probably causing you to ask questions about sugar and food additives and HFCS: questions that you'd rather not have banging around inside your head.
When did food get so complicated?
And what is the truth about high fructose corn syrup?
Is HFCS really totally safe?
Or are the ads on TV precisely because HFCS isn't healthy or safe, and that fact has started to cut into the profit margins possible for commercially prepared, prepackaged foods?
The answer is both more complex and more alarming than you might expect.
Correlation Is Not Causation
The increasing use of HFCS as a sweetener in soft drinks and processed food is unambiguously correlated with rapidly increasing rates of obesity. Sometime during the 1980s, at the same time that HFCS began to be widely used by the food industry as a cheaper alternative to sugar, obesity rates in the U.S. began to climb very fast.
You might think that this shows that HFCS is solely responsible for the rising rates of obesity in America, but you would be wrong.
Just because two events are correlated, it doesn't mean that one caused the other. The correlation could be a coincidence. Or, there a third, unknown factor might account for the correlation.
To know for sure whether consuming HFCS causes (or helps to cause) obesity, you have to design experiments that test this theory. Then you have repeat those experiments over and over again and get the same results a majority of the time.
This is where things get political and money matters.
Experiments can be manipulated to show specific results, and results can be spun to look less significant than they are. Experimental research is also very expensive, and food industry organizations and food corporations are happy and anxious to fund experimental research that will show that their product is either harmless or good for you.
If you aren't a scientist schooled in proper experimental design and statistical interpretation, you aren't likely to be able to sort through the clinical language with a critical eye.
The food industry counts on that fact.
The Research on HFCS
A study done at Princeton University in 2010 showed that HFCS blocked the effectiveness of leptin, the hormone that tells the body it is full, and increased levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The results were highly publicized and set the processed food industry on the defensive with advertising and studies of their own.
Another non-food industry study conducted at UCLA showed that the fructose in HFCS actually blocked thinking and memory function in the brain when ingested on a regular basis over time.
Yes you got that right: HFCS makes people fat and stupid.
But that's not all.
Because HFCS turns off satiety signals and interferes with normal insulin production, it leads to diabetes in individuals that would otherwise not be diabetic--a finding confirmed by the recent spike in type II diabetes in children. Before HFCS, this disease was almost exclusively seen in older people who were overweight and/or genetically predisposed to develop it.
Higher triglyceride and LDL cholesterol levels mean a higher risk or heart attack, stroke, and even some cancers.
If you search online today, you'll find these studies and you'll also find lots of studies funded by the processed food industry, the Corn Refiners Association, and studies based on data gleaned from processed food industry files and corporate farms. For this reason some nutritionists will still say, "Research results are mixed" on the topic of whether HFCS is bad for health or not.
Personally, I have seen enough good studies showing HFCS is dangerous in its own right to conclude that it is dangerous.
But even if you choose to believe HFCS is no different than table sugar, there are still reasons for concern.
Sugar & Obesity
According to the American Heart Association, healthy human beings should not ingest more than 20 grams of sugar per day (12 grams for children).
While that may seem like a lot of sugar, consider than a medium cola (21ounces) at MacDonald's contains about 62 grams, or 3 times the recommended maximum.
Have two medium soft drinks in one day, and you've already exceed the total amount of sugar your body can handle by a factor of six.
In fact, the average American currently consumes about 115 grans or sugar per day, and that number is increasing year after year.
When NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested restricting the size of soft drinks at restaurants and food carts to promote better health for the city, he was loudly ridiculed from all sides of the political spectrum. People should be free to eat and drink as they please, and anyway, how would you ever enforce a ban on super-sized soft drinks?
People would just buy as many as they needed.
Maybe Bloomberg's idea was a clinker, but the negative response to it dramatically illustrated the vast gap in America between our actual diet and a healthy diet. At the base of the problem sits a mountain of sugar, HFCS, and various other sweeteners.
You can have more sugar if exercise is part of every day, but for most of us it is not.
If you could only cut one thing out of your diet to make it healthier and less fattening, that thing would be sugar.
The reason sugar is so bad for us is that it changes metabolism in a very bad way. When you eat a sugary food your energy spikes briefly, then plummets as the sugar wears off. This plummeting blood sugar causes you to feel irritable and tired and to crave more sugar.
Over time, too much sugar causes fat to accumulate around the waist and belly area. The body can't make enough insulin to remove the sugar from the blood, and diabetes is the result.
Unfortunately sugar is in almost everything touched by the food industry. Condiments, breakfast cereals, canned soups, canned fruits, canned veggies, frozen foods, yogurts.. the list is endless.
Foods that are high in sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates are easy to sell because the taste for sugar and fat is universal in humans. When food is marketed for profit by corporations, it is only natural that these ingredients would be included.
It isn't that corporations are necessarily inherently evil, it's just that they are designed to create profit, not health. We have reached a point in the U.S. where the most profitable foods and the least healthy. And most of them are sweetened with HFCS.
Even if HFCS is not inherently damaging to the human body (although I believe that independent research shows that it is), the fact that bad food full of sugar and fat is now cheaper than good fresh food consisting of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and whole grains, should concern everyone.
In fact, most Americans now consume corn and not much else.
HFCS is made from corn and is used in place of cane sugar. Animals are fed corn to fatten them up faster, which depletes the flesh of nutrients necessary to human health. Many starchy snack foods are made with corn, oil, and starch.
If animals get fat faster when they eat mostly corn (but also get sick faster), it stands to reason that people will experience the same effects.
What can you do to counter the increasing trend toward highly sweetened processed foods, without breaking your pocketbook?
Here are a few easy suggestions:
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery and stay out of the aisles. Fresh foods are mostly displayed on the perimeter.
- Buy whole grains in bulk and cook them ahead of time to combine with veggies and a small amount of meat (if you are a meat eater). For example, you can cook up a pot of brown rice and keep it in the refrigerator for about ten days, reheating it as necessary through the week.
- Get to know your local farmer's market and freeze produce when it is in season. This will save you money over store-bought fruits and veggies.
- Stop drinking soda. Try water over ice with a squeeze of lemon, unsweetened iced tea, or unsweetened fruit juices mixed with carbonated water.
- Pay attention to your breakfast choices. Most cold cereals contain ridiculous amounts of sugar and no fiber to speak of. A few that are not too bad are Kix, Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, and Chex cereals. Oatmeal (not the packets, but whole oatmeal) is still the best cereal.
- Learn to read labels. If HFCS or any other sweetener is listed first or second or even third, that means the product is mostly sugar.
- Switch to whole grain bread. Look for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
- Stop buying sugared yogurt. Plain yogurt sweetened with fresh fruit and a little honey is better than the presweetened varieties with fruit flavorings.
- Commit to a salad a day. A large fresh salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar will usually give you your entire five servings of fruits and veggies with no added sugar.
- Cook easy meals at home using whole foods instead of buying fast food, frozen food, or processed food. A meal can be as simple as beans and rice with a little cheese, or a tortilla filled with fresh veggies & guacamole. Whole grains combined with fresh vegetables and or beans make a good base for a light summer salad that can serve as a meal with very little prep work.
Getting off of sugar can be tough at first, but many people find that after awhile they really do lose their taste for it.
It boils down to this: When you do the cooking, you can focus on nutrition and health.
When a corporation does the cooking, it has to focus on profit.
That's what a corporation is for.
So cook your own food. Skip the sugar. Eat fresh.
That should do it.
In a future article I'll list some easy dinners that use whole foods and no sugar that practically cook themselves, and also ideas for fresh breakfasts and lunches that don't rely on starchy sweets or culinary expertise