For many concerned parents and careful eaters, high-fructose corn syrup has become emblematic of processed, unhealthy food. After years of the sweetener being added to ketchups, breads, and seemingly every cold cereal on the market, push-back has led manufacturers to start dropping the sticky stuff in favor of cane sugar.
Now, high-fructose corn syrup manufacturer and lobbying group, the Corn Refiners Association, wants to wipe away the negative associations many people have with the syrup. The group launched an aggressive $30 million dollar publicity campaign including ads featuring wholesome-looking actresses proclaiming, “it’s made from corn” and “it’s fine in moderation,” and a website with sections named “HFCS & Your Family” and “Myths vs. Facts.” The newest sally in their rebranding effort goes for the name of their product itself: the Association recently petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to start labeling the sweetener “corn sugar.” They say it will clear up “confusion” among consumers, while opponents see the move as a cynical attempt to distance the ingredient from it’s well-deserved bad reputation.
As disingenuous as it might seem to associate their product with the nutritious grain corn, instead of using the ominously chemical-sounding label “high-fructose”, the Corn Refiners Association’s request isn’t unreasonable. To make high-fructose corn syrup, corn is heavily processed and broken down with enzymes to form a mixture of fructose and glucose, simple sugars. (Cane and beet sugars are sucrose, a fructose-glucose compound.) Let’s be fair — high-fructose corn syrup is indeed sugars from corn, not a mysterious artificial chemical compound.
Whatever The Name, The Damage Is the Same
“Corn sugars” or not, though, the sweetener hits a triple bottom line of destruction, damaging us economically and environmentally as well as damaging our health.
The dominance of high-fructose corn syrup in our market has been made possible by very substantial involuntary contributions from American taxpayers. According to the Environmental Working Group, in 2009 alone the government provided corn producers with nearly $4 billion in subsidies. Not all this largesse supports the high-fructose corn syrup industry (hi, ethanol! hello, animal feed!), but it ensures that it is more profitable for large-scale farmers to grow vast quantities of corn than to diversify their crops. Taxpayers are effectively paying for the production of rivers of high-fructose corn syrup, artificially lowering the price of this sweetener even as government tariffs push up the price of sugar. It’s hard to imagine the billions we devote to the overproduction of corn couldn’t be put to better use — like, say, the health care needs of everyone who’s been eating 35.7 pounds of high fructose corn syrup a year.
A Public Health Peril
Much of the public health debate over high-fructose corn syrup is based on whether or not our bodies metabolize this ingredient differently than beet and cane sugar. Studies have suggested high-fructose corn syrup may contribute to obesity more than regular sugars, and others have linked high-fructose corn syrup with kidney and liver disease. Other researchers — and not only those employed by the corn industry! — have questioned these results. It would not be fair to say the evidence that high-fructose corn syrup is worse than table sugar is conclusive, but it is highly suggestive.
Even if the Corn Refiners Association is right and “sugar is sugar,” the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup makes it a public health problem. Processed into simple sugars, corn loses nearly all its rich nutritional value. High-fructose corn syrup has no vitamins, no minerals, no micronutrients, no protein, and no complex carbohydrates — the millions of acres that could be burgeoning with fresh produce, fruit trees, free-range meat, cereal grains, legumes, and other healthy foods are instead uniformly churning out a sugary liquid that becomes part of everything from bread to pickles to soda.
It’s true that high-fructose corn syrup is not the only culprit here — for instance, Americans eat even more table sugar than they do high-fructose corn syrup — approximately 44 pounds per year. However, the low (subsidized) cost of high-fructose corn syrup means manufacturers have an incentive to slip it into foods as a “make it appealing by making it sweet” shortcut. It also means that at my local supermarket, nonorganic skim milk is over twice the price of soda (measured by the gallon) and organic milk, rice milk, and soy milk are even pricier.
As every farmer knows, corn is hard on the soil, stripping out nutrients and sucking up water. Given the subsidies for corn, it doesn’t make short-term financial sense for large-scale farmers to rotate corn with less profitable crops like alfalfa. Instead of replenishing the soil with natural methods like crop rotation or manure fertilizers, most large-scale corn farmers deluge their fields with artificial nitrogen-based fertilizers. This fertilizer creates deadly run-off, killing marine life and poisoning groundwater.
Furthermore, the petroleum-based fertilizers and industrial-sized machinery used for planting, spraying, and harvesting corn burn huge amounts of fossil fuels — according to Michael Pollan, “a half a gallon of it for every bushel.”
The New Name Can Stay If The Subsidies Go…
It remains to be seen if the rebranding efforts of the Corn Refiners Institute will be successful (Business Insider says it’s a “genius move”). We should certainly work to ensure that everyone has the facts about what they’re eating, rather than assuming “corn sugar” is a new and healthy sweetener. More important in the long run, though, will be taking action against the massive corn subsidies, which have had such serious and multi-faceted consequences. The next opportunity for change will likely occur in 2012, when the next national Farm Bill is developed. The odds are long — voting against corn subsidies has long been a losing strategy for politicians (so losing, in fact, that it’s rarely been tried), and with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling the industries that benefit from cheap and plentiful high-fructose corn syrup will be free to influence votes with stacks of corporate money. Still, the high-fructose corn industry is obviously scrambling to reinvent themselves with consumers, showing that negative consumer response to the pervasive presence of high-fructose corn syrup is having some effect. Staying informed, staying vocal, and voting with your wallet (try Care2′s High Fructose Corn Syrup Challenge!) will demonstrate even more strongly that the flood of “corn sugars” should no longer be embraced.
Photo from Zanastardust's flickr under Creative Commons license.