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05 June 2007 @ 04:13 am
High Fructose Corn Syrup  
High fructose corn syrup has gotten a lot of media coverage lately, and is the subject of current debate.  It's not hard to see why; so many are touting it as a nefarious additive, ever present in processed foods.  I did some research in an effort to be more aware, and this is what I turned up.

HFCS is in a disturbingly large amount of our everyday foods.  When I started making an effort to buy less products containing it I was overwhelmed to find out how many did, including many that aren't even noticeably sweet.  Not only is it predictably in most sodas (Jarritos and Jones being rare exceptions) but it's also found in most canned soups, breads, cereals, yogurts, bottled teas and candies.  Much to my surprise, HFCS is also an ingredient in many health-oriented foods.  It is especially common among children's foods.

From a financial viewpoint, this makes sense: HFCS is cheap to make.  Because of the huge subsidies coordinated by the farm bill, corn is one of the cheapest vegetables to produce, especially when genetically engineered to grow at accelerated rates.  As if this weren't enough, the Sugar Association has successfully increased the price of sucrose (the sugar derived from sugar cane and sugar beets you probably know as "table sugar") by establishing a quota system that limits the import of cheaper, foreign sugars and through a loan program that supports the growth of domestic sugar.  (Nestle, 322)  Between these two powerful organizations, domestic sugar costs three times as much as it would if imported and corn-based sweeteners cost pennies.  HFCS also tastes sweeter, and producers therefore need less of it to sweeten an item.  In short, it's price secures it's use by manufacturers seeking to keep production costs low. 

So that explains it's omnipresence in our foods, but why is it so evil?  Last year's Trend Report claimed that 38% of consumers are actively seeking out products that do not contain HFCS.  Personally, I think that statistic seems a little high, but it conveys my point.  HFCS actually refers to several different corn-originating sugars which are produced through a chemical process.  HFCS starts out as cornstarch, which is treated with enzymes to break the gel-like substance into it's smaller, component molecules.  The result of this is a mixture of glucose and smaller starches, which needs further treatment to become HFCS.  The glucose and starch mix is then treated with more enzymes to convert a portion of the glucose into fructose.  This can lead to 42-HFCS or 55-HFCS, with 42% fructose and 55% fructose respectively.  At least one GMO enzyme must be present for this to all happen.  A lot of people would draw the line at HFCS's production because of the intense treatment it must undergo to become sweet. 

A lot of evidence suggests that people don't metabolize HFCS in the same way as sucrose, and have linked it to the increase in obesity. 

This is where my research gets murky... I don't feel like I understand enough about metabolism to make an informed decision about it's health benefits or downfalls.  And while the evidence is mounting in favor of sucrose, further research needs to be done.  This seems like a relatively new subject of study.  Marion Nestle, author of What To Eat, has a surprisingly unantagonistic view of HFCS.  She views it as one of many sugars contributing to obesity, no more harmful than sucrose or fruit concentrate, but simply provided in unhealthy amounts.