Opinionated Essence of the Day:
Everyone who eats anything in North America has an opinion on High-Fructose Corn Syrup. As an opinionated person with a blogging medium and invisible non-audience, I of course am no exception. I’m almost inspired by the discussion in the Slate’s Cultural Gabfest (a podcast of opinionated banter on culture), which I listen to while I pretend to clean my room and play fetch with my dog. They raise interesting points, but mine are better.
They mention the three following arguments against High Fructose corn syrup when compared to regular (cane) sugar, which are as follows: a) it is worse for your personal health and may be responsible for the rise in obesity, b) it is bad for the planet, as it is a monoculture and therefore more pesticide resistant, which causes bad things that make Al Gore cry himself to sleep, and in perhaps the most relevant point, c) it tastes icky and we don’t like it.
All of these points have some merit - though in discussion it’s suggested that the truth behind the taste factor may simply be the fact that High Fructose Corn Syrup is more refined and ‘pure’ in that it is simply sweet, while cane sugar (or other alternative, natural sugars) have more complex molecular ingredients, and taste like ‘cane sugar,’ as opposed to simply ‘sweet.’ I like the taste of cane sugar, but that’s probably an excellent point.
Points in regards to the environment are probably true, though, of course, anything said about the environment is best said with an air of panic, through a megaphone, and should involve complex imagery of the zombie uprising and the words ‘we’re all going to die!’ written in the blood of a uncaring populace who choose to ignore Greenpeace’s awkward zealotry. As such, I take environmental messages with a grain of salt, and will probably die a horrible death from rising flood waters or sunburn or whatever, and frankly I don’t care.
The only point I have any expertise on is in regards to health impacts, and by ‘expertise’ I mean ‘uncanny memory for random tales presented by interesting UBC professors.’ So, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Will you kill us all?
Yes, and no.
The short version:
Corn syrup isn't dangerous in and of itself, but it is cheaper than other sugars, which means we use more of it (and soft drink sizes, among other things, are much bigger than they were in the past). Supersized food equals supersized people with supersized plaques in their arteries, done.
The longer, original, ranty version:
Over the past fifty years, the population of the world has approximately doubled. The food supply, however, has tripled. So while there is a lot of merit to growing your own garden of food, or torturing your small child into finishing their plate full of eggplant, it has nothing to do with starvation in Africa. Policies and politics cause starvation, as does replacing localized food production with cash crops like cocaine, and coffee, and corn. Corn?
Yes, corn. As history tells us...
The reason that the food supply has tripled, is that we’ve learned to genetically select and modify crops. Genetic selection is a very old practice - as old as turning wolves into teacup Chihuahuas and wild grapes into Pinot Noir. However, we’ve gotten better at it the last century, and around the time of the 1950s, we figured out how to grow a lot more food in much smaller spaces, through bigger and taller and more compact plants.
Corn is the most notable example. It’s been getting sweeter every year for over a century now, as farmers use the seeds from their sweetest corn to propagate next year’s crop. Again, around the 1950s, this art became science, and corn farmers found themselves sitting atop a mountain of…corn. It was sweeter than ever and they could grow it at never-before-seen rates of plenty. Supply and demand kicked in, corn prices dropped, and suddenly the world met the cheapest form of sugar that ever was: High Fructose Corn Syrup, a sickly sweet, locally grown, easy-to-transport form of goodness which largely replaced cane sugar and found its way into the hearts and arteries of young people across the nation.
Actually, it’s not especially bad for you. It’s just sugar, good old glucose-fructose. The chemistry is virtually identical…yes, there is slightly more fructose in corn syrup compared to cane sugar (including refined cane sugar, the white table sugar we know and love). Each plant has very slightly different ratios, and sweetener manufacturers may refine their ingredients to make them whiter and more purely ‘sweet,’ but the end results, unfortunately, aren’t anything to write home about. They are sweet, they make our manufactured food sweet, they make our soft drinks sweet, and the only big differences come in the following forms:
1. High-fructose corn syrup may or may not elude our brain’s satiety centres, and therefore it doesn’t trigger a feeling of fullness in the same way that other calorie-laced foods do. This point is debatable (in my own experience, nothing that is overwhelmingly sweet makes you feel full so much as nauseous), and you may ignore it, because the real point is this:
2. High-fructose corn syrup is cheap.
Cheaper sugar meant cheaper soft drinks, and people who made value menus at fast food joints had a choice. They could reduce the cost of the food they were serving (which included a tiny Tim Horton's sized gulp of Coca Cola), or they could increase the size of their servings. Naturally, they went with the latter option, much to the detriment of North American’s waste-lines.
Supersizing was born. It started with the pop we drink, and ended up pretty much everywhere, from our butts to our boobs to our cankles. It’s not that we’re a gluttonous bunch…our bodies are programmed to eat during times of plenty to store fat for the droughts ahead. Unfortunately, droughts aren’t really a issue any more, and this feast-and-famine evolution has led to a world full of chunky monkeys. The most vulnerable populations are, ironically, some of the most hearty - the more tribesmen you lost to starvation in the desert, the more likely your body is to conserve every last calorie it can, and that means epidemic obesity in these times of record harvests and cheap corn.
In the final kick to our expanding guts, the cheapest foods aren’t especially packed with vitamins. It is cheaper than ever to get the calories you need, but it can be increasingly expensive to eat a diet full of diverse and varied plant sources - and so obesity has become a poverty issue as much as anything else.
And in a final side note, the American government of the Bush years wanted to invest in ethanol as an alternative fuel - this meant that they would pay good money for corn syrup, which was clearly already in abundance. However, as we are not a people of moderation, we planted even more corn, and replaced a great deal of food crops and jungle and whatnot in the process - this was mostly in the third world, of course, where land and human life come cheap.
And that is what slurpies and third world poverty have in common: corn, corn, corn.