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Documentary at the Jepson shows the dangers of high fructose corn syrup

HOW MUCH of this do you believe?

New research continues to confirm that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is safe and no different from other common sweeteners like sugar and honey.

High fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener and has the same number of calories as sugar.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted high fructose corn syrup “Generally Recognized as Safe” status for use in food, and reaffirmed that ruling in 1996 after thorough review.

High fructose corn syrup offers numerous benefits, too. It helps keep foods fresh by slowing microbial growth. It enhances fruit and spice flavors. And it helps keep breakfast bars moist.

All that was in an editorial by Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, that appeared two weeks after a piece about specialty soda pops was published in the Savannah Morning News.

The makers of specialty sodas had the audacity to suggest that “pure cane sugar is just a cleaner sweetness” (Don Spencer, brewmaster for Silver City Restaurant and Brewery in Silverdale, Wash.) or that “it’s better for you, it’s better-tasting and, overall, it’s better for the environment” (JonesSoda CEO Peter van Stolk).

Why such a swift rebuttal to a seemingly innocuous article about high-end soda pops? One answer is the ongoing battle between the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association, both of which are concerned with their respective industries making a profit at the expense of the other.

Obviously, the sugar industry would laud any suggestions that their product tastes better and is better for you than high fructose corn syrup. And the makers of high fructose corn syrup know it’s in their best interest to squash any suggestion that their product is does not taste as good, or has deleterious health consequences.

Never mind the obvious correlation between the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in 1970s, with its consequent incorporation into virtually every Big Food processed product, and the sharp rise in obesity and a host of obesity-related diseases—including type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

Currently, 65 percent of adult Americans are overweight and 31 percent are obese. In 1976, those figures were 47 percent and 15 percent.

Few of us would dispute the causal relationship between the high intake of sugar and weight gain, but the high fructose corn syrup industry seems bent on doing exactly that. Failing to convince us on that score, they argue that high fructose corn syrup is no more to blame than ordinary sugar.

To sort through all of the hype, it’s helpful to first look at what high fructose corn syrup is. High fructose corn syrup, like table sugar, is made up primarily of two components: fructose and glucose. In table sugar (sucrose), these components are covalently bound into a single molecule in an exact 50/50 ratio; digestive juices break down the larger sugar molecule in the intestines.

The level of fructose in HFCS is subject to manipulation. Glucose from corn starch is processed to yield a high-level of fructose (90 percent) and then remixed with glucose to produce the desired ratio: 42 percent fructose (typically used in baked goods) or 55 percent fructose (typically used in sodas, fruit punch, or candies).

The claim that high fructose corn syrup is nearly identical to table sugar simply isn’t true. The research that shows a link between high fructose corn syrup and obesity is intriguing but as of yet inconclusive.

For example, researchers at the University of Georgia have shown that “rats fed a high-fructose diet quickly become leptin-resistent—they have plenty of the hormone, but they cannot put it to use” (“Discovering the Skinny on Fat,” University of Georgia Research Magazine, Fall 2007).

Leptin is one of the hormones that enables our brain to send us signals of satiety. The absence of leptin is associated with obesity, so inactivating leptin is thought to cause obesity as well.

This and other research is able to show that glucose and fructose follow different metabolic routes. Glucose is known to increase the production of insulin, to increase the production of leptin, and to suppress ghrelin, another hormone associated with appetite control.

Fructose appears to be treated more like a fat; it doesn’t increase insulin and leptin nor suppress ghrelin. Fructose seems to be converted by the liver more efficiently into triglycerides, particularly in men.

Using tactics reminiscent of Big Tobacco, the high fructose corn syrup industry aggressively tries to discredit research that indicates their imbalanced sweetener has any deleterious health consequences.

For example, one can read numerous studies that negate any claims that high fructose corn syrup is more harmful than sugar.

One astonishing claim is that “Soft drink consumption does not lead to higher obesity rates.” This claim is backed by research funded by the Archer Daniels Midland Company, one of the world’s largest agricultural processors.

The study (published in Food and Chemical Toxicology) cites “multiple lifestyle factors and higher dietary fat intake” as more significant contributors to obesity.

Blame the individual, not the product. Does this tactic sound familiar?

Another study, funded by PepsiCo (published in Nutrition) shows no difference in high fructose corn syrup and table sugar “on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin on appetite in normal-weight women.”

Their methods involved “thirty lean women” who were carefully screened for the absence of histories of weight problems and then subjected to two day studies: the first day they consumed 30 percent of their calories from either HFCS or sucrose-sweetened beverages, and the second day they were allowed to eat normally.

The research group concludes that further research is needed “to determine if these findings hold true for obese individuals, males, or longer periods.” One has to wonder why such a biased study would have been constructed in the first place.

Good researchers acknowledge the inconclusiveness of their evidence, yet the HFCS industry takes inconclusiveness as proof that its product is not harmful.

Of course, there is no shortage of doctors who are willing to blame everything but high fructose corn syrup for the obesity epidemic.

Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director of George Washington University Weight Management Progrm, asserts, “HFCS is the chemical and nutritional equivalent of table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition, and are metabolized identically” (HFCS Facts).

Sounds like a reputable authority, right? He’s also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Corn Refiners Association.

So, let’s pretend for a moment that we believe the Corn Refiners Association and the industry they represent. If the HFCS industry really is interested in creating a product equivalent to table sugar, why don’t they just do it? Why not simply create a product that is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, since the processing of corn into this product clearly allows them to manipulate the ratio of simple sugars?

One reason is that high fructose corn syrup tastes sweeter than regular sugar. It excites the taste buds more and makes the consumer want more of the same product.

There’s no need to digest the product, so (theoretically) sugar enters our blood stream more quickly, giving us a near instant sugar hit. Perhaps this sweeter tasting product that enters our bloodstream quicker is more addictive than ordinary table sugar.

On December 13, Reel Savannah will screen the documentary King Corn, which exposes, among other things, the paranoid tactics of the Corn Refiners Association.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis pose as just college buddies eager to retrace their roots in a farming community in Iowa. They rent an acre of a corn farm, plant it in the conventional way with anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, and follow through with the usual assortment of chemicals to eliminate weeds and insects.

When their crop is close to harvest, they set out to trace what will happen to their corn once it’s harvested. They discover that 32 percent of their corn crop will go to the production of ethanol, about 50 percent will go to feed animals, and the remainder will go into high fructose corn syrup.

Our ingestion of corn goes well beyond what we consume in high fructose corn syrup or the edible kind that we find in the produce section. Cattle, which evolved to eat grass, are now fed diets of about 90 percent grain.

Whereas it once took several years for cattle to reach market weight, it now takes 140-150 days to “finish” a calf for meat production. Not surprisingly, these cattle get sick on corn-fed diets, which is why cattle consume about 70 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States.

These animals are obese. A typical T-bone steak from grain-fed cattle contains 9 grams of fats, whereas the same sized T-bone steak from grass-fed cattle only contains 1.9 grams.

When Cheney and Ellis attempt to visit corn refineries to learn about the production of high fructose corn syrup, they are stonewalled at every turn. They do manage to speak to none other than Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association.

Erickson explains to the young men that it is for their own safety that they are not allowed inside high fructose corn syrup factories, and she implies that the technology of converting corn to high fructose corn syrup is beyond these two Yale graduates.

The men manage to concoct their own batch of high fructose corn syrup. Erickson is right about the dangers of the process; sulphuric acid is required to separate the starch from the fiber and the corn product is then put through at least three enzymatic processes—some of which could seriously injure the handler.

Okay, so the process of converting corn to high fructose corn syrup looks scary when done by amateurs in a movie, and it’s too scary to show America what really goes on inside a processing plant.

But is the end product truly dangerous to our health?

Even if the Corn Refiners Association could show by independent research that there is no difference in how the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup as opposed to table sugar, the fact remains that we’re getting a lot more sugar in our diets, about 30 percent more, than we were 20 to 30 years ago.

Another huge difference between our sugar consumption now and our sugar consumption in the 70’s is that we knew when we were eating sugar in the 70’s. We knew that if we put jam in our biscuits or ate that sugar-glazed doughnut that we were eating sugar.

Now we’re easily deceived into thinking that we’re eating healthy when we eat breakfast bars with names like Nature Valley, or eat dried fruits sweetened with HFCS yet sold at high-end grocers like Fresh Market.

One point that the documentary King Corn hammers home is that we’re a corn-fed nation, whether it’s from eating high fructose corn syrup in our juices, candies, cookies, ice cream, and cereals or from eating corn-fed beef, pork, and chicken.

Like the cattle we are fed, we are in danger of becoming a nation of fat, sluggish, sick animals with short life expectancies that can only survive through more and more radical medical intervention.

Reel Savannah presents a special premiere screening of King Corn, a documentary by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, screens at 6 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 13 at the Jepson Center for the Arts. Tickets are $6, cash only. Read and see more at www.kingcorn.net

Take the HFCS-elimination challenge:

Many of my friends get panic-stricken when I suggest eliminating HFCS from their diets, so I’ve come up with a list of tips that to get you through the first three weeks. If eliminating HFCS from your diet produces no results, you should return to your normal dietary regimen.

• Buy 100% fruit juices. Yes, it can be done. I’ve found these juices easily for the last 7-8 years.

• Replace sodas with carbonated waters (check label to avoid added sweeteners). Although no more than 8 oz. of fruit juice is needed by any adult, occasionally mixing 100% fruit juice and carbonated water is a refreshing alternative to soda.

• Use toasted bread (generally those baked fresh at the grocer are safe) instead of commercially prepared crackers.

• Bake your own cookies, pies, or cakes if you must have them.

• Shop for quality jams sweetened only with sugar; use sparingly. European jams, which usually have less sugar, can be found at discount prices at places like T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and World Market. The slight tartness or sourness is the taste of fruit.

• Mix plain yogurt (preferably organic) with sugar sweetened jam, table sugar, or honey. Fresh fruits and nuts are great toppings. Greek yogurt, although expensive, is creamy enough to satisfy the most dissolute taste buds.

• Avoid cheap candy. Dark chocolate is the newest health food. Imported brands do not contain high fructose corn syrup; eating a small quantity daily will quell most sugar cravings.

• Never assume that just because something looks healthy that it is healthy. Check labels of all cereals, breakfast or health bars, and dried fruits.

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Nancy Sherrod

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