Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re trying to eat better, trying to feed those kids better, and you’re finding it difficult.
And some of you never feel full. Or you find yourself eating even when you’re not full. And what you find yourself eating? Not always so good. Ah, yes. This is because you live in America, land of processed food in boxes, of omnipresent vending machines, of gas stations that stop selling gas, because the real money is in snacks. It’s also the land of high fructose corn syrup.
I have two high fructose corn syrup challenges for you. Here’s the first:
Challenge #1: Pick up random items in the grocery store. Soft drinks, sure. Even things like juice “cocktails.” And while you’re at it, try tomato sauce. Ketchup. Cookies. Crackers. Soups. Yogurt. High fructose corn syrup is in lots of these items, perhaps most. Indeed, a remarkable number of products contain high fructose corn syrup.
Is that a problem, you wonder? Maybe. No, wait. What I mean is Yes, definitely, but it may or may not be for the reasons some think.
High fructose corn syrup (HCFS), this thing that we eat an average of 63 pounds of each year, is a corn-based sweetner. It’s heavily processed, using various mechanical processes and the addition of at least three enzymes. The end product has a higher fructose content than table sugar (HFCS is generally 55% fructose and 45% glucose, though apparently the fructose content can be higher. Cane sugar’s ratio is 50/50). That difference may be important. Or it might not.
But wait. First the “why?” Why so much HFCS?
Food manufacturers love the stuff, because it:
1. Mixes easily with other ingredients.
2. Extends shelf-life of processed foods.
3. Helps prevent ice crystals and freezer burn.
4. Helps breads to brown, and it keeps them soft.
5. Is as much as 20% cheaper than other sweeteners, thanks to our agricultural subisidies.
So, what’s the problem? Dr. Mehmet Oz, author of You: The Owner’s Manual, made big news when he appeared on Oprah and told audiences that they should stop consuming HCFS. Dr. Oz says that the higher fructose content means that our bodies process HFCS differently than other sugars:
One of the biggest evil influences on our diet is the presence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sugar substitute that itself is a sugar found in soft drinks and many other sweet, processed foods. The problem is that HCFS inhibits leptin secretion, so you never get the message that you’re full. And it never shuts off gherin, so, even though you have food in your stomach, you constantly get the message that you’re hungry.
Intake of high fructose corn syrup grew by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990, far exceeding changes in consumption of any other food. The rise of corn syrup mirrors the increase in obesity. Fructose also raises insulin, blood pressure, and triglycerides…stop eating all forms of industrial corn.
Others argue that the problem isn’t HFCS itself, but rather the added calories that would come from any sweetened foods. The New York Times reported last year that the folks who made the original HFCS-obesity connection have sinced backed off from it.
Here’s what Marion Nestle has to say:
I view corn sweeteners as an especially inexpensive and ever present form of sugar(s), but nothing more sinister…if corn sweetners have anything to do with obesity, it is surely because processed foods are loaded with them, and lots of people are eating lots more of such foods.
In other words the problem may be that there’s something inherently wrong with HFCS, and how a body processes it (it gets converted to fat faster, and your “I’m full” mechanism gets shut off). But it may simply be that this otherwise harmless ingredient is associated with crappy, low-nutrition foods that people eat in huge amounts (there’s a great article, covering research into both theories, here).
My take on it: Who cares? Let’s just not eat it.
And that’s my High Fructose Corn Syrup Challenge #2: Stop consuming things with high fructose corn syrup. Just swear it off. I can almost promise you that you’ll lose weight and feel better. It’s possible that this is because there’s something inherently evil about the stuff. Or maybe it’s simply because by making HFCS a no-no ingredient, you will eliminate about 90% of the junky foods that would otherwise wind up in your shopping cart.
If nothing else, think of high fructose corn syrup as a giant red flag that says “I’m heavily processed! I’ve lost most of my nutritional value! The people who made me took the cheap way out, because they care more about profits than quality! You don’t want to eat me!”
Seriously. At the very least, you’ll avoid a boatload (or rather, a cartload) of unhealthful things. And, who knows. If all that research bears out, you might (1) decrese the amount of triglycerides (fat) released into your bloodstream, (2) increase the hormones (insulin, leptin) that give the “I’m full” signals to your brain, and (3) decrease the production of hormones (ghrelin) that increase your appetite and hunger. In other words, you might be less hungry, and what you eat will convert to fat less readily.
A warning: it’s harder to avoid than you might think. I recently picked up a carton of Newman’s Own lemonade at the food co-op. The second ingredient? HFCS (Paul, baby. You disappoint me).
For a great, different perspective (literally) on HFCS? Check out this Sprol post (I love this guy. He gets one of my tags for the thinking blogger meme).