Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A Corny Tale

cornImage via WikipediaHigh fructose corn syrup is one of a number of things in food that I avoid like the plague – I’m really no fan of any form of processed food and prefer to buy my ingredients raw, basic and ready to cook from scratch.

HFCS is a nasty, insidious ingredient in much processed food, particularly of American origin (over 55% of all sweetener in the USA, which means the average American consumes something over 60 pounds of the stuff a year) but also favoured by high volume food processors around the world. It’s basically the cheapest form of highly processed sweetener that’s not aspartame and the scientists behind processed food (many of whom, I suspect, would hesitate to eat their own creations) love it because shareholders love cheap and we all love sweet. We lurve da fat, we lurve da sweet.

HFCS is produced, oddly enough, from corn, typically Genetically Modified corn because of the vast production of GM corn in America and a range of subsidies that make this gloop cheaper than real sugar there. The corn is ground up to produce cornstarch. This is mixed with water to make a slurry treated with the addition of a number of enzymes including alpha-amylase (also used in bread improvers and detergents) and Xylose isomerase. Nice, eh?

With 58% of Americans citing a level of concern over the ingredient, thanks in no small part to a number of exposes, documentaries and public information efforts carried out over the Internet, it’s little wonder that the people that make this awful shite are feeling the pinch. In fact, demand for the instant fix sugar rush that many have blamed for America’s rise to becoming the earth’s Most Morbidly Obese Nation has dropped to the lowest level in twenty years. Which is no bad thing, really.

Now the American Corn Refiner’s Association, reacting to this drop in popularity, wants to give High Fructose Corn Syrup a quick image-buffing and rename it “Corn Sugar”. The idea is that the evil High Fructose Corn Syrup tag on the packaging that scares moms away gives way to nice, friendly ‘corn sugar’, because HFCS, says the ACRA, is just the same as sugar.

This isn’t the first time the Association has tried. Two years ago it launched a major PR initiative, “Changing the Conversation about High Fructose Corn Syrup” which aimed to characterize HFCS as a ‘natural’ product. Critics point out that a slurry of genetically modified cornstarch treated with enzyme infusions (themselves containing synthetic chemicals) is hardly natural. Sadly for the PR effort, the FDA agreed with the critics and a spokesperson said that HFCS should not be labeled ‘natural’.

You only need to go to the Association’s current corn sugar promoting website and see the pictures of happy families tucking into mountains of fruity goodness to know that there is a fundamentally evil force at work here. Click on the video and wander through fields of lovely corn with a slick, pretty actress, oh sorry, “A mother navigates through a maze of confusing information and learns whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference.”

Amusingly, someone's been trying to edit the Wikipedia entry for High Fructose Corn Syrup to introduce the 'Corn Sugar' name, but the Wikipolice are on top of it.

To my immense amusement, the sister website to the insidious, is blocked by Etisalat. I can only imagine it's something to do with corn dogging, but then second guessing Etisalat is a surefire trek down the road to flailing insanity.

But of course the argument’s not really about whether this awful, processed syrupy gloop is natural or not. And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not about whether HFCS ‘short cuts’ the body’s satiety response and leads directly to obesity. It’s about the fact that the stuff is absolutely everywhere – particularly in sodas which are responsible, apparently, for some two thirds of its total consumption in the US. Some manufacturers, including Snapple, Coke and ketchup maker Hunts have removed it from their products, but HFCS is in drinks, bread (particularly processed brown breads. I mean, you really, really do not want to know what’s in Subway’s ‘wheat bread’, but I can tell you HFCS is the fourth largest component of the stuff), fruit mixes, lollies, cakes, biscuits, chocolates, crisps, soups, yoghurts and ice cream. In short, if it’s a processed food, it could well be delivering you a belt of gloop.

Thank God we at least have regulations that insist on products carrying a label with a full list of ingredients by weight, so it's there to see on the label. Whatever they call it.

BTW, other 'Yew, is that what's in my food?' related posts include this one on what's in Pringles and this one over at The Fat Expat on Palm Oil.
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EyeOnDubai said...

Excellent post, thanks. I share your abhorrence of all things pre-prepared, but have yet to come up with a suitable acronym for the cooking style - Nothing From A Packet doesn't work yet as a name, but it's a wonderful basic philosophy that wraps up all that's best in Slow Food, Locavore, SOUL and organic. Am counitng down the days till the cover comes off the barbeque!


Susan said...

Real Fast food - lets face it, it takes less time to crack a few eggs and make an omlette than it does to wait for a delivery where the packaging usually has more nutritional value and flavour too!

I object to the malnutrition industry taking over the term "fast food" and I claim it back!

Rootless said...

Any valid points you may have here are swamped in the hagiographic conflation of bad science with sensationalistic nonsense underpinned by Victorian prejudice about the superior virtue of all things natural.

Let me just play back two of your finest moments in this post:

"This is mixed with water to make a slurry treated with the addition of a number of enzymes including alpha-amylase (also used in bread improvers and detergents) and Xylose isomerase. Nice, eh?" So what is it that is supposed to be so repulsive here? Those long unfamiliar chemical names? Enzymes? That it is a slurry? In fact, your description of this process is pleasantly reassuring to me as somebody who has had some concerns about HFCS and who is not as wilfully scientifically illiterate as the audience at whom this is clearly aimed.

"You only need to go to the Association’s current corn sugar promoting website and see the pictures of happy families tucking into mountains of fruity goodness to know that there is a fundamentally evil force at work here." Huh? Fundamentally evil force??? Stand aside Al Qaeda, the real enemy reveals itself.. So a large established industry trying to defend its interests and present its side of the story (to which I am becoming ever more sympathetic) is fundamentally evil? Sorry, please remind me which profession pays your bills (until you have that Booker winning blockbuster of course)?

I have had some concerns about HFCS but the increasingly insubstantial and hysterical case against it is causing me to examine the evidence more thoroughly. Well done all you promulgators of swivel-eyed conspiracies, you are starting to make me feel some sympathy for ADM, Cargill and their unscrupulous, oligopolistic ilk.

alexander... said...

Rootless, there's no bad science in there.

Any industry trying to take a highly processed, genetically modified product that is demonstrably a causative of endemic obesity and diabetes and present it as good for you is, in my book, evil.

And I don't get my bills paid by taking on work like that... so I don't have to rely on the unrealistic prospect of that Booker for a while yet. :)

Rootless said...

Ah, but Alexander, even your reply is a perfect illustration of this conflation of bad science and emotive propaganda.

Here's your bad science: "demonstrably a causative of endemic obesity and diabetes". While there may well be a linkage between the prevalence of HFCS and obesity, there is no respectable published study - the only benchmark we have in science which has a much higher burden of proof than legal evidence - which has deemed it "causative". Granted, in such a complex biological system that will be very difficult to do - but it IS bad science to make such a claim. You may passionately believe the evidence demonstrates causality but that is not a scientific validation. Same reason the big bang and evolution are still described as theories despite having substantially more supporting evidence than this claim.

Here's your emotive propaganda:
"highly processed, genetically modified product". Now in your profession you are very familiar with the concept of loaded words, ostensibly innocent but articulated to provide them with all sorts of meaning, especially to an audience already suggestible based on the context. There is nothing inherently wrong with something that is "highly processed" (like, say, cheese souffle) nor is there any hazard attributable to genetically modified foods, yet here they are conducted to a semiotic crescendo of implied horror. Much as you did in the original post by listing those scary-sounding enzymes without mentioning that they happen to be naturally occurring in human metabolism.

I don't see the antics of "big food" on this one being different or more reprehensible in any substantial way than any other industry lobby group, whether big oil, big pharma, big electronics (all those health hazards attributed to radiation from mobile phones and TVs in stand-by mode) or - worst of all - big (or even little) media. I find the sanctimonious "organic food" movement to be far more obnoxious, not just because it's championed by your Prince Charles. Not a single reputable study has ever demonstrated any nutritional benefits from organic food production despite its claims to inherent virtue. It has even been difficult to reliably repeat favourable taste preference in properly conducted blind tests. Inefficient, low-yield organic production is an environmental disaster and somehow still seems to be embraced by the same people who jump on every passing green-wagon. Industrial farming may have given us CJD and mass salmonella poisoning but it has also given us the best fed, best nourished, longest-living generation of humans in history.

i*maginate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
i*maginate said...

I personally love smoked salmon, poached or scrambled eggs, and cherry tomatoes. Yum! Made-at- home eggs benedict with a sprinkle of pepper; minus the bread. I really don't even mind grilled squid for breakfast - well that's after I found out tinned herring has so much sugar in it!!!

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