“Corn sugar” leaves sour taste

America’s most controversial, ubiquitous and heavily subsidized sweetener, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is hardening its stance in the public debate just a tad.

This month, its Washington-based industry lobby, the Corn Refiners Association, has asked the Food and Drug Administration for the authorization to change the name of the product on processed food labels. Yes, you got this one right: out with “high fructose corn syrup”, in with “corn sugar”.

Naturally, these efforts are all in the name of promoting transparency and reassuring confused consumers since, after all, “whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, the body can’t tell the difference: sugar is sugar”, as a confused-turned-confident mother tells viewers in a current TV spot. No, really.

(For the sake of balanced reporting, I include here a beautifully concise summary of  “What’s Wrong With High Fructose Corn Syrup?”, which includes HFCS’s genetically modified source and its reportedly awkward metabolization by the body. I would only add that it is cheaper than cane sugar and dissolves very easily, hence its presence in most processed food including baby food).

At any rate, between the campaign statement quoted above and the implied message that you can quit-worrying-about-the-diabetes-epidemic-noise-and-just-keep-feeding-your-kids-soda-and-HFCS-laced-processed-food (meanwhile all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds), there is only a narrow step that, if the Corn Refiners Association’s strategy goes as planned, many consumers will take without blinking.

It should be pointed out that the Corn Refiners Association’s anxiety about the impact of consumers’ preferences on its market is not without grounds. Over the past ten years, the bad press focused on the likely correlation between the ubiquitous presence of HFCS in processed food (including bread and meats) and the obesity and diabetes epidemics observed in the United States, has caused the HFCS market to decline by more than 9%. Within the past year alone, brands like Pepsi, Heinz and Starbucks have heeded their consumers’ concerns and moved away from cheap HFCS to go back to good ol’ cane sugar despite a significant price premium.

Now. Cane sugar doesn’t exactly warrant a claim to health, despite its being a “natural” product (refining process notwithstanding). It’s fructose content may be 10 points lower than corn syrup’s, yet its consumption without moderation raises as many health issues as its rival. Replacing “corn sugar” with “cane sugar” won’t do much to heal this country from its sugar addiction.

The reality is, added sugar has got to go. Avoid processed food. Read food labels as if searching for the Mega Million winning ticket. And enjoy the sweetness of natural foods, including many vegetables like carrots, beets and bell peppers and all the fruits that Nature makes available to us.

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