What's wrong with high fructose corn syrup?

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Dear Robyn,

I noticed that you avoid corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. Why? And what, if any, sweeteners do you prefer?

-Steven F.


Thank you for that excellent question. High fructose corn syrup is a cheap, highly processed, sticky sweetener that is devoid of nutrients and causes excessive thirst. It is an allergen for many people and causes gas and other digestive issues. Because it is extremely sweet and extremely cheap, it is employed by most large mainstream food companies as a primary sugar source. It is the first or second ingredient in many standard mainstream soda drinks, "juice drinks," inferior energy bars, cold cereals, ice cream and other frozen desserts, and baked goods.

Amazingly, you'll also find it in things like ketchup and other condiments, commercially made breads, and canned foods such as baked beans, soups, and pasta sauces (things that you wouldn't imagine need sugar, and especially not THAT sugar). Often such products include two, three, four or five sources of sugar--or even more--the list reading something like "high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, sugar..." Believe it or not, some conventional baby foods and even infant formulas contain high fructose corn syrup! And "diet foods," which are supposed to be helping with this kind of thing, are notorious for abusing these sugars.

Another problem with corn syrup is that most corn available today is made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and unless otherwise noted, corn syrup can be assumed to be produced from GM corn. If like many consumers you are interested in avoiding GM products, either as a personal act of political will, or so as to avoid being a guinea pig for experimental agribusiness (or both), you will need to avoid corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. (The same goes for corn oil, by the way.)

Consuming fewer sweetened foods overall, and food less heavily sweetened, is definitely a healthy choice; research, experience and indeed the simple facts of physiology bear this out. But life and food are to enjoy and for those of you who, like me, really enjoy sweet foods, simply select the best, highest-quality brands and products when you do eat sweets. (See Food Brand Recommendations.) Eaten in moderation with wide variety of other foods, goodies containing whole, unprocessed and sustainably produced sugars are not harmful to your nor to the environment. (Diabetics and others with true blood sugar disorders must still monitor their intake of simple carbohydrate carefully, regardless of the wholesomeness of the sugar source.)

Choose sugars such as unrefined, organic cane crystals/cane juice, pure unrefined organic Sucanat or sugar such as Rapadura brand (whole, dried juice of sugar cane--the sugar stream is never separated from the molasses as in the processing of refined sugar). Another good choice, though more costly (probably prohibitively so for baking, though it is very sweet and flavorful) is date sugar (ground dates are the only ingredient). Next best choices include rice syrup or fruit juice concentrates. After that, molasses and honey, though simpler and less nutritious, still win out over refined white sugar and brown sugar (which is essentially white sugar with the molasses put back in after it has been separated from the sugar stream in processing).

Sugar cane in its natural form is rich in minerals and vitamins. The sugar molecules are bonded with other organic molecules to make a somewhat more complex food (though this is of course relative; it IS still sugar). In contrast, however, refined sugar is devoid of nutrients and is so heavily, thoroughly processed that it behaves more like a drug than a food.

It is important to choose organically produced sugars as well. The responsibly produced, unprocessed kind usually is also organically produced (in studying food brands and ingredients, it is apparent that generally, producers who care about one aspect of good agriculture tend to care about ALL of it). Unrefined is not only more nutritious and easier on the body; organic is also less toxic to you and the environment. Conventionally grown sugar cane involves herbicide, insecticide, pesticide and fungicide use, as well as crop burning and other detrimental agricultural practices that harm soil, air, water, and the health of farm workers.

Too, the processing and filtration of conventional refined sugar is energy intensive and uses large amounts of petrochemical/fossil fuel, which is wasteful and environmentally unsound. Sugar cane plantations are notorious for substandard wages, benefits and working conditions. All this, and the government actually subsidizes conventional sugar cane plantations! Your tax dollars already contribute too much to this unhealthful industry; you need not voluntarily contribute more.

Finally, for those with vegetarian or vegan concerns, the fact that most white sugar is bone-char processed is one more strike against it. A bone char filter is an activated carbon filter (made of bones from cows), used to decolorize sugar (make it white). Almost all cane sugar refineries require the use of a filter for this whitening process, which occurs towards the end of the sugar refining procedure. Bone char is derived from the bones of cattle from Afghanistan, Argentina, India and Pakistan (according to the Sugar Association and several large sugar producers, all of the cows have died of "natural causes" and do not come from the U.S. meat industry.) Over half of the cane refineries in the United States use bone char as their activated carbon source. Domino, the largest sugar manufacturer in the U.S., uses bone char in the filtration process. The cane refineries of Savannah Foods, the second largest sugar manufacturer, also use bone char. California and Hawaian Sugar employs bone char filters in addition to granular carbon and ion exchange filters. All these companies use the bone char in the refining process of brown sugar, powdered sugar (sugar mixed with corn starch) and white sugar.

Fortunately, thanks to today's burgeoning natural foods market, there is no need to be part of any of this. With no sacrifice at all, you can choose from a vast and ever-widening variety of cereals, juices, snack/energy bars, cookies, cakes, chocolate, crackers, breads, candy, condiments, canned foods, baby foods, and other convenience items that are made with wholesome, organically produced, less-refined or unrefined and non-GMO ingredients, including organic unrefined sugar sources.

All of this is especially important for babies and children, who tend to favor sweet treats; and whose delicate and developing immune systems are vulnerable to the assault of too much unrefined food and the toxic exposures related to conventional food production.

Also see these links:
Robyn Landis comments on corn syrup in 3/24/03 LA Times article


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