Monday, July 21, 2008
A spoonful of sugar (helps the medicine go down)
I said I’d start posting up occasional pieces on the food we eat and what goes into it. There are already a couple of these over at the Fake Plastic blog, both of which have been popular reads for people: the post about Aquafina (tap water with a mixture of minerals shipped over from Pepsico US and added after filtration) and the one about Pringles (did you know what was IN a Pringle?) have both been read by a large number of people searching for more information about both products, which is nice.
Here’s one for you: high fructose corn syrup. You’ll find this tasty little ingredient in a huge range of processed foods – it’s what makes Snapple drinks sweet and gives them that satisfying edge of gloopiness. It’s also to be found in pretty much any processed food where the manufacturer is looking to add some nice, cheap sweetener. It’s interesting that this highly processed sugar substitute is found in Snapples, which are clearly labelled ‘100% natural’... The US FDA actually allows this highly processed sweetener to be labelled as natural, which is at best slightly odd and at worst a triumph for some very intense lobbying from some very large conglolmerates.
So what is the stuff?
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is produced by a three-stage process that takes corn starch and breaks it down to a liquid sugar solution of 45% glucose and 55% fructose. There’s a lot of stuff about chains, but HFCS 55 is similar to ‘natural’ processed sugar in its sucrose/fructose content (it’s got 5% more fructose) but is structured differently, something which has led researchers to review how it’s metabolised. Fructose, by the way, is no bad thing in moderation – it’s fruit sugar, found naturally in all fruit. One of the concerns about HFCS, however, is quite how much of it is being sneaked into processed foods to make them seem nicer. And we're not just talking 'sweet' foods: HFCS appears in a surprisingly wide range of foods, including bread, ketchups and other condiments and sauces.
HFCS, if sourced from the US which leads world production and where 85% of production is in the hands of four giant companies based in the ‘corn belt’, is likely derived from Genetically Modified (GM) corn and processed using GM enzymes, too.
There’s a lot of debate about the downside of HFCS: research has pointed to the rise in US obesity levels being concurrent with the rise in HFCS used – today, Americans eat more HFCS than they do sugar. The combination of natural fruit juices and natural fructose-containing foods with cakes, pies, chocolates, sauces and sodas containing HFCS can be a massive double whammy of fructose, which has been linked to a process whereby the body’s natural feelings of satiety and fat reduction mechanisms are effectively bypassed. In other words, researchers believe that consuming more sugar as fructose actually makes you fatter, faster than consuming normal sugar. Studies in laboratories have showed that rats fed a diet of glucose did OK: those fed a fructose and low copper diet declined alarmingly and their life expectancy dropped from 2 years to five weeks. Many Americans, incidentally, have copper deficiency.
As we all know these studies are pretty extreme – you’d have to eat a lot of fructose before you’d start worrying about those types of scare effects. Well, the average American is currently consuming almost 30 kilos of HFCS a year.
The high levels of US consumption of HFCS are a trend that has directly mirrored the reduction in the consumption of other sugars – in fact it’s the American import tariff control system that’s mostly responsible for the cost-effectiveness of HFCS to food processors (it can cost up to 20% less) – in Europe, HFCS is much less popular. So you’re more likely to find HFCS in American processed foods – but the sheer quantity of it might just raise an eyebrow or two. Because, just as we like fatty foods, we tend to prefer sweetened foods, too.
An American branded soda can contain over 12 teaspoons of HFCS, while an American branded ketchup can contain a teaspoon of HFCS per tablespoon of ketchup. You’ll find HFCS in some surprising places: it is used to keep foods moist, to make breads browner and as a preservative. It’s also a popular ingredient in American health foods! It’s important to look at what foods ‘claim’ to be sometimes. For instance, if you’re looking at a ‘low calorie’ or ‘light’ salad dressing, you’d have to wonder what it’s made of. In fact, many low calorie dressings replace the oil with a nice dose of gloopy corn syrup – it helps to bulk up the texture and offset the vinegary ingredients. And a ‘healthy choice’ American low-calorie yoghurt can pack 10 teaspoons of sweetener!
Take a look at Capri-Sun juice drinks, by the way, or American barbecue marinades, processed cakes, biscuits and sweets. Smuckers grape jelly, Ocean spray jellied cranberry sauce and a range of other natural-seeming foods pack an HFCS punch, as do Pepsi and Coke. In fact a 12oz Pepsi will deliver you a dose of sweetener equivalent to over 10 teaspoons of sugar, while a Cinnabon will serve you up over 12 teaspoons of the stuff.
By the way, Burger King, KFC, McDonalds, Subway and others are big users of HFCS in their foods.
Although there’s no proven link between HFCS and health issues, there is definitely a hell of a lot of the stuff lurking around in processed foods. And if you’d like to avoid consuming in excess of your recommended daily intake of sugar by eating a single yoghurt or drinking a can of fizzy drink, or if you’d rather avoid consuming GM foods, then it may well be worth taking a look on the label first.