High fructose corn syrup has become the leading sweetener in processed foods during the past two decades in the United States. Food-like products such as soda, cookies, cereal bars and most other processed foods contain the sweetening additive. A consumer may not believe that the soda, containing high fructose corn syrup, they are purchasing may have traces of mercury or may be the result of false inflation. The sweetener in that soda does connect mercury tainting, government policies, nutrition, and capitalism all in one convenient, yet slightly mysterious, substance. High fructose corn syrup, also shortened to “HFCS”, is a sweetener refined from corn. According to Pollan “fructose is a different form of sugar, commonly found in fruit” (Pollan 105). In the 1970’s fructose was isolated and extracted from corn creating high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup has been cheaper to use in processed foods than sugar since the 1980’s due to a sugar quota that restricts the amount of sugar imported to America. The increased use of HFCS in foods is a result of America’s sweet-tooth, a false sense of good nutrition, legislative decisions, government subsidies, and economic demand. All these factors have contributed to the rise of the new sugar: high fructose corn syrup.
Why is high fructose corn syrup an issue and does this sweetener really have an effect on human lives or the environment? Our bodies are ecosystems, just like a forest or grassland, which must be protected and cared for in order for them to flourish and grow. Americans, as well as the human race, must respect our bodies before they can fully respect the earth from which sustaining food sources come. The connection between plants and human food was once as simple as soil to mouth. Now the food web involves scientists, monoculture, and human-made creations such as high fructose corn syrup.
A trip to the supermarket can hardly occur without corn-filled food products jumping into the cart ready for the consumer to purchase and feed to America’s youth. High fructose corn syrup is a major part of the American diet and fills the shelves of an average grocery store. To be healthy in today’s society a consumer must be educated on their choices and understand the complex ingredients in the food they purchase. Surprisingly, “nearly a quarter” of the calories consumed on a daily basis are “in the form of high-fructose corn syrup” (Pollan 122). Corn syrup sneaks its way into many unlikely processed foods. If “on average, Americans spend 12% of their incomes on food”, a person devotes approximately an eighth of their income on products containing high fructose corn syrup (Brown). The increased use of corn syrup, “invented in the 1970’s”, parallels the “American pandemic of obesity” (Brown). According to Pollan “our bodies have a long-standing and sustainable relationship to corn that they do not have to high-fructose corn syrup” (Pollan 104). The American culture as a whole is still not accustomed to consuming such high percentages of HFCS since the syrup has become available in the late 1970’s. As more U.S. citizens purchase foods containing corn syrup the nation’s health declines.
We live in the age of nutritionism, a movement directing our choices and simplifying our busy lives into the basic nutritional needs. Foods are no longer just foods; they consist of additives, nutrients, and imitations. High fructose corn syrup is not “necessarily harmful in and of itself”, but is “highly processed to the point where [it] may no longer be” food but are now in the category of “food products” (Pollan 150). Though whole grains are nutritious “food scientists have added high-fructose corn syrup and honey to” sweeten white bread made from refined grain creating a “bread” that contains large amounts of grain which transform quickly into glucose (Pollan 153). Many foods contain HFCS yet provide the consumer with energy, in the form of glucose, which is transformed and burned quite rapidly. Pollan recounts “the amount and structure of the fiber in corn will determine such things as the speed at which the sugars in it will be released and absorbed” (Pollan 104). When corn fibers are condensed to syrup form, the release and absorption of sugar into the body significantly increases. Today “food processors find ways to deliver glucose-the brain’s preferred fuel-ever more swiftly and efficiently…as when corn is refined into corn syrup” (Pollan 107). Short bursts of energy can be useful in certain situations, although if a diet consists mainly of quick transforming glucose substances a sense of fatigue may arise sooner than an eater anticipates. Since HFCS is a food product, it may be difficult to realize how its creation and consumption relate to a world outside a suburban grocery store. Should a food product so widely available be feared, questioned, or even considered dangerous? HFCS plays a significant role in connecting scientific research and agriculture to an American’s daily meal.
Mercury, a dangerous heavy metal, is not normally requested when grabbing a snack. All eaters, that is all humans, should be aware their snack may contain traces of metal. Renee Dufault, an FDA researcher published in the Environmental Health journal, tested levels of mercury in samples of high fructose corn syrup from three HFCS manufacturing plants finding “mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram” (Dufault). The rate is quite low considering that the average American consumes approximately “50 grams” of HFCS daily (Dufault). The results of the Environmental Health study also found “traces of mercury…in name-brand products from makers including Quaker, Hunt’s, Manwich, Hershey’s, Smucker’s, Kraft, Nutri-Grain, and Yoplait” (Philpott “Some”). These shocking discoveries were not used by the FDA (Philpott “Some”). Though an FDA researcher found traces of the heavy metal, members of the food community were reassuring. The Corn Refiners Association responded to a similar report by IATP on mercury in February 2009 stating “Americans should know that no mercury or mercury-based technology is used in the production of high fructose corn syrup in North America” (Erickson). Though mercury technology may not be used in HFCS production the harmful element is finding its way into our food. The Corn Refiners Association states the “EPA sets limits for mercury in drinking water at two parts per billion” (Erickson). This scale of mercury is difficult to compare with the Environmental Health team but is related to a United States government agency. The Corn Refiners Association assures that the mercury found was “at levels one-hundred times below the EPA limit of concern” and well below the level set by the “U.S. Food and Drug Administration” (Erickson). Trace mercury within substances may be unavoidable in the world today, but should consumers suffer unknowingly from health issues, however slight, due to the “safe” amount of mercury they ingest with every soda or Special K Bar?
Today high fructose corn syrup reigns over sugar due to its extended shelf life and a sugar-prejudiced piece of legislation. Clearly, “the food industry defines what we eat and the way we thing about what we eat” as exemplified by the general public knowledge regarding brand identification as a result of advertisements (Brown). We live in an age when processed foods rule the supermarket shelves and sweeteners provide the necessary desire from consumers to purchase many refined and processed foods. Food processors must make a choice when sweetening their food-like products: sugar or high fructose corn syrup. The “world price of processed sugar” is “below that of HFCS” explaining why countries, excluding the United States, use sugar as a sweetener in soft drinks and other foods (Philpott “AMD’s man”). So why do American processed food companies use HFCS instead of sugar? In 1982 a “sugar quota” law was placed in effect for the United States fixing the price of sugar by limiting the amount of sugar imported and creating a market for other sweeteners (Philpott “AMD’s man”). This “artificial inflation” rule is the most important reason companies made the switch to corn syrup (Philpott “AMD high”). Corn syrup is economically more practical for the food industry to use a corn based sweetener instead of a sugar based sweetener to enhance the taste of foods. Not only does HFCS sweeten but it “is used in food products to enhance shelf life” (Dufault). The shift to use HFCS was aided by the corn industry and was a bittersweet decision challenging to undo.
High fructose corn syrup creates a demand for greater corn production which is not only unhealthy for human bodies but is detrimental to Earth’s body in the form of monoculture and government subsidies. Corn is one of America’s four biggest crops allowing for a broad range of uses (Brown). In America “two thirds of corn is processed or refined for food or industrial uses”, providing the country with a diet consisting mainly of corn (Brown). Furthermore, “45% of that corn becomes sugar” often in the form of “high fructose corn sweeteners the cornerstone of… soft drinks” (Brown). Corn is used for so many products including whole corn kernels, oil, corn syrup, and ethanol. The growing reliance on corn poses a threat to the diversity of agriculture in America. The U.S. government provides subsidies which allow farmers to grow crops, such as corn, to make a profit (Haskell). The monoculture system of agriculture has provided unbalanced food production paired with fixed prices not representing the true value of the food grown. If our food production is based considerably on corn, which it is, the farmlands will continue to be depleted through nutrient loss in soils. Widespread growth of corn production ignores the many other nutritious and environmentally diverse plants that can be found in smaller local farms. Government subsidies provide a false sense of security and have turned America into a corn consuming nation. Economic choices to use high fructose corn syrup have only aided in the provision of subsidies to farmers growing corn.
The strength of high fructose corn syrup in the market today is a result of government, personal, and economic choices. The health of the land and soil or human bodies is generally not considered by food processing companies or farmers making a living through their government subsidies of corn. There are present dangers as much on grocery shelves as they are on a battlefield today. Americans are fighting a battle between proper educated nourishment and the perils of ill-chosen human-created food imitations. Though HFCS has overtaken the processed food market as the cheap sweetener of choice, it will never rank higher than sugar in my heart. How long before Americans find no qualms in singing a song verse like “a spoon full of high fructose corn syrup helps the medicine go down” ? Will corn syrup really be the sugar of America’s future, or is it already? The issues surrounding high fructose corn syrup and corn production are complicated problems involving many social systems that cannot be easily consolidated and solved to benefit all parties engaged. In America’s capitalist market system consumption is a sign of prosperity but does not recognize the harmful cost to the body of Earth and humanity as the result of a corn dominated lifestyle. High fructose corn syrup is connected to the corn plants, farmers, government subsidies, federal agencies, food corporations, congress, and the consumer. These characters create a new sort of food web that is connected more by people than by humans and other animals. Scientists and nutritionists are learning more each day about the complex nature of the foods we eat and create; this urges a consumer to be well educated alerted to the food that contains high fructose corn syrup.
Dr. Brown’s Food Powerpoint
Dr. David Haskell Talk February 19, 2009
Erickson, Audrae . “Mercury Study Seriously Flawed and Outdated; Fails to meet the standards for scientific research.” The Corn Refiners Association 3 Feb 2009 3 Mar 2009 .
Dufault, Renee, LeBlanc, Schnoll, Cornett, and Scheitzer. “Mercury from clor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar.” Environmental Health 2009 4 Mar 2009.
Philpott, Tom. “ADM’s man at USDA.” Gristmill 21 Sept 2007 28 Feb 2009 .
Philpott, Tom. “ADM, high-fructose corn syrup, and ethanol.” Gristmill 10 May 2006 28 Feb 2009 .
Philpott, Tom. “Some heavy metal with that sweet roll?.” Gristmill 26 Jan 2009 28 Feb 2009 .
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.