Move over, red meat. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is the new bad boy of the food industry. Although companies like Hunt’s, Gatorade and Pepsi are rushing to replace HFCS with sugar, it’s ubiquitous in our nation’s food supply. Not only was there a recent report of mercury contamination in HFCS, but in February, a study came out of Princeton University suggesting that rats fed HFCS for 6 months gained more weight, had more body fat and showed higher triglycerides than rats fed the same amount of table sugar (sucrose.) A flurry of debate, fueled in part by the corn syrup industry, followed, calling into question the significance and accuracy of the study. In the meantime, Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and films like “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” accuse the corn industry of practically force-feeding Americans corn products.
I’ve been skeptical about all the negative press that High Fructose Corn Syrup is getting. As I recall from my biochemistry class, all sugars are broken down into their simplest forms so the body can use them for energy. They can be used immediately, or stored for later use either as fat, or as a carbohydrate called glycogen.
Reading more, I learned that sucrose, and HFCS are both composed of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Both contain about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The big difference is that the fructose molecules in HFCS float free, while each fructose molecule in sucrose is stuck tightly to a glucose molecule.
The Princeton researchers think the unbound fructose in HFCS is more likely to be stored as fat than the bound fructose molecules in sucrose. They may be on to something.
It makes sense that sucrose and HFCS would be processed, or metabolized, differently. Our body has to do some work to break apart the glucose and fructose in sugar, while the fructose in HFCS is instantly available to our metabolic machinery. For thousands of years, our bodies have evolved to break down plants, whole grains and meat to power our cells. Now, we’re essentially shoveling pure energy down our throats in the form of HFCS, white flour and other processed foods. I don’t think it will be long before researchers have more concrete evidence that corn syrup is not equivalent to sugar in the human diet.
I’m not going to knock myself out avoiding foods containing HFCS, but as a mom and a label reader, I will definately choose products sweetened with sugar. Call it a gut feeling.
Happy Earth Day! This weekend, we planted a garden. Few things make me happier than watching my kids digging in the dirt, planting things. Maybe it’s because I come from a long line of farmers, or maybe it’s the sun-warmed, homegrown tomato I can almost taste just by thinking about it.
One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which follows four meals from field to table (from McDonald’s to foraging for mushrooms and hunting a wild boar.) It reminds the reader of how disconnected we have become from the sources of our food. One of my favorite parts of the book talks about Joel Saletin, who is a seminal figure in the sustainable agriculture movement and probably the most famous farmer in America. His bio on the FRESH movie website says:
“Joel calls himself a grass-farmer, for it is the grass that transforms the sun into energy that his animals can then feed on. By closely observing nature, Joel created a rotational grazing system that not only allows the land to heal but also allows the animals to behave the way the were meant to – as in expressing their “chicken-ness” or “pig-ness”, as Joel would say.”
This week, Joel is in town with Ana Joanes, who has made a documentary called “FRESH” that celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. It’s about food, but it’s also about economics, community and social justice. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to meet both Ana and Joel while volunteering at one of Joel’s lectures and was impressed with their optimism and sense of humor. Ana recently told planetgreen.discovery.com “I just had a little girl. Her name is Maayan. And, as clichéd as it may sound, I just want to do right by her. I don’t know what reality she’ll face when she reaches adulthood, but I’m trying my best so she doesn’t have to pick up the pieces of our recklessness and inaction.”
I saw FRESH last night in Minneapolis and loved it! The movie is just 70 minutes long, but you will want to talk about it for two hours afterwards! Tonight’s the last night it’s showing, so if you’re in the Twin Cities, don’t miss it! You can order tickets here.
The movie brings up interesting points about monocultures, antibiotic resistance, high fructose corn syrup, the corn industry (which my grandparents’ farm in Iowa is a part of,) and beneficial bacteria. I’m planning to explore many of these issues on this blog by writing a weekly post about food science between science experiments! Stay tuned!