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Chemical sweetener

(article, Caroline Cummins)

In her 1992 book The Story of Corn, Betty Fussell wrote about corn from many perspectives, including that of her Midwestern family: "Like the Indians, we too were the people of corn, but our corn was synthesized at the molecular level and extruded into the marketplace as the coin of the realm."

She continued:

bq. By manipulating the glucose units \[in corn\] with an enzyme derived from — unlikely as it sounds — Streptomyces bacteria, the refiner can get a supersweet fructose called High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Today, this is where the king's share of cornstarch goes, because this syrup is the sweetener of choice (as long as it is cheaper than price-supported cane sugar) for the soft drink, ice cream and frozen dessert industries.

In the 15 years since Fussell's book appeared, little has changed — except that we now consume HFCS in all kinds of processed foods, not just desserts and drinks. As Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore's Dilemma, "Read the food labels in your kitchen and you'll find that HFCS has insinuated itself into every corner of the pantry: not just into our soft drinks and snack foods, where you would expect to find it, but into the ketchup and mustard, the breads and cereals, the relishes and crackers, the hot dogs and hams."

Pollan is no fan of HFCS, and neither is Marion Nestle; in her book What to Eat, she reported, "In 1980, when rates of obesity were just starting to rise, the U.S. food supply provided an average of 30 gallons of sugary soft drinks per capita, but the amount rose to 35 gallons in 2003. The food supply now provides an average of 200 calories per person per day from the high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks alone."

Nestle isn't so worried about the fact that HFCS is synthesized; as she points out, when you eat it your body simply breaks it down like any other sugar. But both Nestle and Pollan are bothered by the fact that we eat ever-increasing amounts of the stuff. And some folks are really bothered by the fact that HFCS is not, well, natural.

As Melanie Warner reported in the New York Times last summer, many consumers now link high-fructose corn syrup to our rising rates of obesity. "In the news media and on myriad websites, high-fructose corn syrup has been labeled 'the Devil's candy,' a 'sinister invention,' 'the crack of sweeteners,' and 'crud,'" Warner wrote. "But is it really that bad?"

Warner quoted Walter Willett as saying, "There's no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity." Rather, along with Pollan and Nestle, Willett is worried that we're simply eating too much junk in general. Because corn is a subsidized crop in the U.S., HFCS is cheap for manufacturers to use, meaning that products containing it are also cheap. We buy more, we eat more. And hey, big surprise, we get fat.

Refined cane sugar, as Warner points out, actually has more fructose (the sugar that supposedly makes us pack on the pounds) than HFCS. But cane sugar, in many camps, has the virtue of age: 

bq. Among natural-foods enthusiasts and many nutritionists, there is a belief that the foods humans have been consuming for hundreds or even thousands of years are better handled by our bodies than many of the modern and chemically derived concoctions introduced into the food supply in the last 60 or so years.

So maybe HFCS really is "the crack of sweeteners," a relatively new, untested product with unknown long-term effects on the human body. 

In May, the Economist reported that scientists have identified causal links between HFCS and obesity. "Fructose apparently tricks the brain into thinking you are hungrier than you actually are," the magazine stated. 

"It’s not that the fructose itself is bad for you," the Economist_ continued. "After all, that’s what you get from eating fruit. But there’s just so much of it around these days that it’s hard to avoid consuming it to excess."