Archive for January, 2010

The REAL surprise: HFCS is everywhere

The “Sweet Surprise” ad campaign tells us high-fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation — but is moderation really possible? Read on.

Have you seen the Sweet Surprise advertisements? Launched in the summer of 2008, the $30 million multimedia campaign aims to improve public sentiment towards high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Well, that’s my take on it. The Corn Refiners Association, who paid for the campaign, has a different explanation:

The goal of the campaign is to dispel myths and correct inaccuracies associated with this versatile sweetener and highlight the important role high fructose corn syrup plays in our nation’s foods and beverages.

The TV ads, which pit mislead HFCS-free followers against in-the-know HFCS fans, boil the campaign down to three points: high-fructose corn syrup is natural, nutritionally the same as sugar, and fine in moderation. The problem with those three points is that they entirely skirt the real issue. Let’s take the campaigns points one at a time.

Is HFCS Natural?

Manufacturers use a fairly complicated chemical process to turn corn into plain old corn syrup, made up of glucose, dextrose and maltose, and corn syrup into high-fructose corn syrup (fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is why food processors tend to favor it).

The FDA has ruled that products made with HFCS can be labeled natural as long as the corn syrup itself never touches glutaraldehyde, a highly toxic synthetic chemical used in its production. A year ago two U.S. studies found that about half of all tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup contained mercury, which is a potent neurotoxin.

So yes, the FDA once stated that HFCS can be called natural — but they also used to think Bisphenol A was no big deal, and we see how that’s turned out.

Is HFCS nutritionally the same as sugar?

This one’s fairly true. Table sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose, and my understanding is that HFCS has only slightly more fructose than glucose.

Fructose has some marks against it when it comes to nutrition; it’s been loosely associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, because the body processes it differently than other sugars. Agave nectar, a sweetener preferred by many natural-food types (who should all read this), has much higher concentrations of fructose than HFCS.

When it comes to HFCS, IS there such a thing as moderation?

“It’s fine in moderation!” the pretty blond in the commercial cajoles her HFCS-resistant beau.

It’s in that last little caveat that the Corn Refiner’s Association makes a sweet, sticky mess of the facts. High-fructose corn syrup may be fine in moderation, but it’s virtually impossible to moderate. It’s not just in the fruit drink at your kid’s birthday party; it’s in the sandwich you send her off to school with each day. It’s not just in the popsicle you share while picnicking in the park; it’s in the yogurt and cereal you eat while reading the paper together every morning.

See, government tariffs make sugar artificially expensive, and the Farm Bill’s outrageous corn subsidies (which, remember, come from that money you send to Washington every April) make corn syrup really cheap — and cheap corn syrup is a great way to add (empty) calories and flavor to processed foods.

In a world without cheap HFCS, soda would still be best enjoyed in moderation, but I doubt you’d find sugar quite so high up on the list of ingredients in Thomas’ English Muffins. It would be much easier to avoid overindulging in sweeteners if we weren’t pre-paying for high-fructose corn syrup with our taxes.

The average American consumes TWELVE teaspoons of HFCS a day, a fact which I can’t quite get over. If our food system placed more emphasis on whole foods — the kind that taste great without the addition of high-fructose corn syrup — maybe we’d be able to enjoy caloric sweeteners in moderation. In the meantime, it takes nothing short of an obsessive vigilance to keep our HFCS-intake to a minimum. Few people have the time, the tools or the money to avoid the high-fructose corn syrup that’s in virtually every class of processed food, so how exactly does the Corn Refiners Association expect us to consume it in moderation?

How can we avoid this stuff?

The obvious answer is to read labels, but when you’ve probably got better things to do than stand in the grocery store picking up loaf after loaf of bread looking for one that doesn’t contain HFCS. Here are some tips:

  • Choose whole foods whenever possible.
  • Check The Greenists’ HFCS-Free category for suggestions.
  • Consult the Accidental Hedonist list of foods containing HFCS (it’s a good idea to double-check these items, since I don’t know how up-to-date this list is kept).
  • Use The Good Guide to research HFCS-free products ahead of time (and if your grocer doesn’t carry an HFCS-free option, ask for it!)
  • [Cian adds] Shop at your local natural foods store, where someone else is paid to read ingredient labels for you. Ask employees for HFCS-free recommendations.

Winter Local

Current circumstances lead me to spend hours every week standing in the produce section of a grocery. Namely because I work there, but that’s only relevant because of the questions I am asked. Here is one of my favorites:

“Are these local?”

It’s hard to describe the chasm between what people perceive should be local and what it’s possible to get locally in Vermont in January. The way the seasons work is by warm weather slowly climbing up the coast and then inland in Spring, then in the Autumn it retreats in the opposite way it came. That means that in the landlocked mountains (Lake Champlain doesn’t count), there are often frosts all the way to the beginning of June and starting again in September. Depending on how far down the mercury drops in a night, crops can be completely wiped out, either in Spring or Autumn. An early frost means that there’s a lot less grocery stores can count on in January from the local farmers.

In January around here, the only way to grow vegetables is to have them in heated greenhouses. State of the art, well heated greenhouses. Very expensive, double or triple paned glass greenhouses. Most of the vegetable farmers around here (who are admittedly few as compared to the dairy farmers and meat farmers, and even those are dwindling) can’t afford a greenhouse like that, let alone a monstrously sized one to be able to house all the greens that would sell in one (let alone multiple) grocery stores over the course of a winter that can range from November through May.

And while I’m explaining what we can’t have local in January, I want to specify that “winter squash” is a bit of a misnomer. Winter squash is called that because it lasts into the Winter, not through it. Having winter squash in the grocery store in January means likely having at least some of it shipped from the Southern states or Mexico.

So what’s local in New England in January? Or at least, what can be?
- potatoes
- sweet potatoes
- leeks
- onions and shallots
- apples that have been in good storage
- root vegetables: parsnips, carrots, turnip, rutabega, and beets
- celeriac
- kohlrabi
- cabbage
- garlic

That sounds like a lot of onion, starch, and earthy flavors, but there are really good recipes where you can locally source all of your ingredients in the middle of winter, even in Vermont. Here’s a good one:

Celeriac Soup
- makes 4 servings -


4 tablespoons butter
1-2 celeriac (about 2 pounds), peeled and roughly chopped
1 large leek, sliced (about 3/4 pound)
1 smallish potato, diced (about 1/4 pound)
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
7 tablespoons (3.5 ounces) heavy cream
Salt and pepper
3 slices good thick bacon, cut into 1/2 inch strips

1. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the celeriac, potato, garlic, and onion, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook the vegetables gentle until they soften, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes until the celeriac is completely tender.

3. Meanwhile, fry the bacon in a skillet until just crispy, then drain on paper towels. (Or try some of these other garnishing options.)

4. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth (or use an immersion blender). Return to medium heat, and season to taste. Whisk in the cream and serve immediately, topped with the bacon.

recipe is from

Keep Monsanto out of your garden

parsley seedling by CianGM-crop producing, seed patent-owning, farmer-suing Monstanto Corporation owns the seed company that supplies Burpee, Johnny’s and other favorite providers with some of their most popular seeds. Keep reading for details.

It’s seed catalog season. I poured over our Johnny’s catalog for an hour and a half last week, reading each and every description and fantasizing about spring. Later, leafing through the catalog for a second time himself, Cian said “I just want to grow everything. Even the cover-crops!”

I know we aren’t the only ones lusting after green growing things right now, and I’m sure it’s a boon to seed companies that farmers and gardeners order their seeds in the depths of winter, when we’re planting imaginary gardens that would put out more produce than we could ever use (if we even had the space for them).

Which is why now is an important time to ask if Monsanto will own your garden this year.*

In 2005, Monsanto bought a multinational corporation called Seminis, which produces and distributes more than 3,000 varieties of popular garden seeds. I mean really popular seeds; over the years they’ve distributed such well-known varieties as Early Girl and Better Boy tomatoes, Red Sails lettuce and Red Knight bell peppers.

Because of Seminis’ market share, it’s difficult for the seed companies we love to stop selling them altogether. The Organic Seed Alliance reports that

Seminis’ varieties account for 11 percent of Fedco Seed’s gross sales, and the numbers are much higher in categories like melons and squash. While Fedco founder C.R. Lawn expressed his personal inclination to have nothing to do with Monsanto, the volume of sales demands careful consideration.

(Fedco has since dropped all Seminis varieties.)

To keep Monsanto out of your garden this season, avoid buying seed produced by Monsanto-Seminis — and ask your gardener friends to do the same. The list of varieties they produce is too long for me to list here, but you can use Seminis’ website to research specific varieties. Make sure you look at products for both home gardeners and professional growers.

Johnny’s currently carries 21 varieties produced by Monsanto-Seminis, and they’re working on phasing out those varieties as suitable replacements are found. They sent Emily of Eat Close to Home this list of all the products in their catalog currently supplied by Monsanto-Seminis:

  • 103 SIERRA BLANCA onion
  • 224 FREMONT cauliflower
  • 240 HANSEL eggplant
  • 241 GRETEL eggplant
  • 568 BISCAYNE pepper
  • 642 DULCE pepper
  • 733 CELEBRITY tomatoes
  • 2038 KING ARTHUR pepper
  • 2063 BIG BEEF tomatoes
  • 2212 PRIZEWINNER pumpkin
  • 2260 FAIRY TALE eggplant
  • 2309 X3R RED KNIGHT pepper
  • 2365 ORANGE SMOOTHIE pumpkin
  • 2368 PATTY GREEN TINT summer squash
  • 2894 SERRANO DEL SOL pepper
  • 2954 CHEDDAR cauliflower
  • 2991 CANDY onion
  • 122 BEAUFORT tomatoes
  • 2794 GERONIMO tomatoes
  • 2700 MAXIFORT tomatoes
  • 2373 TRUST tomatoes

Alternately, you could get your seeds from one of the many distributors that isn’t supplied by The Devil Monsanto; High Mowing Seeds, Fedco, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek are all good examples, and Botanical Interests, whose first-ever print catalog comes out very soon, carries only one Monsanto-Seminis variety (the “celebrity” tomato).

Monsanto has their fingers in our food system every step of the way — and if we’re not careful, before long it’ll be their food system. Check out The Organic Consumers Associations’ Millions Against Monsanto campaign for more.

*I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Monsanto doesn’t own your garden unless you try to save seeds from one of their products. Then, watch out — they might come after you.