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.

One Response to “The REAL surprise: HFCS is everywhere”

  • Tanya:

    Read an article, I think in the NY Times, the other day pointing out that you have to read packages even more carefully now that people are calling HFCS out on its evils– manufacturers are now using more variants of sweetners, including HFCS separated into slight variations, so that if you just scan for HFCS, you see less of it (way at the bottom of the ingredient list).

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