First, the good news: some of the biggest players in the American food business have begun to phase out high-fructose corn syrup–a highly processed sweetener that is produced by a complex series of chemical reactions that includes the use of enzymes and caustic soda. The most common argument against high-fructose corn syrup is the correlation between the rapid rise of obesity in the United States, which began in the 1980s, and the introduction of industrial-grade high-fructose corn syrup at the same time. In addition, high-fructose corn syrup has been linked to diabetes and metabolic dysfunction; and has been shown to elevate triglycerides levels, which can lead to heart disease.
So although it’s great that, according to The New York Times, ConAgra isn’t using high-fructose corn syrup in its new Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees; that Kraft Foods recently removed it from its salad dressings, and is working on its Lunchables line of portable meals and snacks; it’s not in the tomato sauce on a Pizza Hut pie called “The Natural,” nor in the just-released soda Pepsi Natural. But here’s the catch. They’re swapping high-fructose corn syrup with sugar! Food manufacturers are switching to sugar as a result of extensive taste testing and consumer surveys. The general impression is that sugar is more “natural” than corn syrup–and as more and more people are becoming health-aware, that sounds good to the masses.
But just because sugar has been around for a long time, long before high-fructose corn syrup became an industrial staple, doesn’t mean that it is natural, healthy or necessarily good. In The New York Times, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco Children’s Hospital, said: “The argument about which is better for you, sucrose or HFCS, is garbage. Both are equally bad for your health.” Both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are made from glucose and fructose. The level of fructose is about 5 percent higher in the corn sweetener. Dr. Lustig studies the health effects of fructose, particularly on the liver, where it is metabolized. Part of his research shows that too much fructose–no matter the source–affects the liver in the same way too much alcohol does.
In addition, Sugar has caused environmental harm throughout the world’s tropics. Studies by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warn about the environmental impact of sugar crops. One report published by the WWF, called Sugar and the Environment, shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop due to habitat loss, intensive use of water for irrigation, heavy use of agro-chemicals, as well as discharge and runoff of polluted effluent. The report provides some startling global statistics, such as an estimated 5.6 million hectares (roughly 14 million acres) of cropland are lost every year throughout the world due to severe erosion and degradation caused by intensive sugar production. And as new fertilizers and other chemical products are being used, there is a dangerous potential for the sugar-dependent island nations to simply run out of fertile land. And needless to say, big food probably isn’t using Fair Trade certified sugar.
While we can applaud the fact that food producers are stepping away from high-fructose corn syrup–embracing another refined sweetener and calling it natural and healthy seems to suggest that it’s all really just a big game of marketing. Wouldn’t it be great to see these manufacturers begin to use truly natural sweeteners like maple or agave syrup?