We are good at picking a bad guy, quarantining and then moving on, trying to go about life as usual again. It happens with people, products, events, ideologies and just about anything else. It’s like the herd destroying an infected member before they spread a disease too far, except we do it through the internet, TV, dinner debates, personal choice and so on. Few scapegoats fit the bill better than high fructose corn syrup. Not that this smegma of industrial agriculture isn’t doing some level of harm to society. It is for sure. But while the real science is only starting to bubble to the surface, the food-conscious public sets sites on the wrong battles. The fight is not against high fructose corn syrup or even sweeteners in general. It is against the massive lack of information provided in the grocery aisles concerning the actual contents of those sweeteners.
Let’s call this a Bait Battle: The Forces That Be (hear my faux-dramatics) are confronted with a grievance by the general public. They whir into action and eventually we are having a debate that doesn’t get at the heart of the problem but feels like it does, yet if we’re honest, is bouncing around the periphery. (The granddaddy Bait Battle is debating tactics and acceptable casualties in a war.)
With sweeteners and the lack of information about them, the corn industry is more than happy to have people argue about HFCS’s effects, launch a (weak) counter-campaign and eventually bide enough time to shift the sands while the public is focused elsewhere. As long as we’re debating HFCS, we’re not debating the fact we can’t get ground-level information about our food anyway. We’re not debating the fact that it’s called high fructose corn syrup in the first place.
I’ll give you an example of two sets of ingredients. These are right off the bottle.
Heinz Tomato Ketchup (the one we all grew up on)
Tomato Concentrate from Red Ripe Tomatoes
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn Syrup (yes, a second one)
Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup (released recently)
Organic Tomato Concentrate from Red Ripe Organic Tomatoes
Organic distilled vinegar
Organic Onion Powder
(We’ll leave the importance-can’t-be-overstated question of “what the #@%! does organic mean?” and the irony that organic chemistry involves all carbon-based molecules for another time, but you have to love that the word found its way into the ingredients six(!) times, twice in the first. I promise you can’t find someone who will give the word a real definition without using its vague siblings: natural, green, sustainable, socially conscious and environmentally friendly. Also, the idea of organic vinegar makes me chuckle. I don’t know why. Digressing.)
Just notice the shift in sweeteners. Now we have a sugar not called corn syrup at all and can feel better about our purchase! Do a quick search and you’ll find excited health nuts, thankful for this alternative Heinz ketchup. Now we can eat (grass fed) burgers and french-fries, guilt free! Problem solved! Back to work everyone…
Waitasecond, waitasecond, waitasecond.
What the heck is organic sugar? I actually feel more in the dark now than when I was eating the high fructose stuff. For all I know, this is 100% fructose. Or 100% glucose (the other ~50% of HFCS). Is the extension of logic that we should see the word “organic” and “sugar” and just move on, dusting our hands?
The word sugar is about as specific as the word cars. If I told you that I was buying a car, you wouldn’t leave the conversation there. You’d ask what kind I was buying, maybe even what year and color too. Sucrose, fructose and glucose are the [insert color, year] Accord, F-150 and Corolla of sugars (or Outback, Jetta and Jeep if you live in…you know). But there are plenty of other cars on the road and when you start getting into various mixtures and concentrations, you’re making shall we say, hybrid vehicles. Like HFCS, they will all have good/bad/ugly/different effects on metabolism when consumed in certain quantities.
So back to the idea of a Bait Battle. We’ve been tacitly instructed not to ask for specifics about the sugar we consume. The lone word sugar has become a health haven with the idea that as long as we’re talking about table/cane/beet/natural sugar, we’re fine. It’s only when we start getting into industrial sugars, should we start to worry. It’s only when we’re talking about artificial sweeteners, should we worry. Not when we talk about lil’ old sugar; the stuff grandma puts in her coffee. The logic is that we should be satisfied with names like organic sugar when in actuality, it could—we don’t have any way of knowing— have similar sugar concentrations as another industrial sweetener.
“Organic” makes sense for tomatoes ,but fructose, sucrose and glucose are just molecules. They have one definition. Corn fructose and fructose distilled from Mediterranean kumquats come from different places but they’re the same thing; the same fructose that’s in high fructose corn syrup. Here’s fructose.
That’s it. That’s all fructose can be. Glucose and Sucrose have their own unique structures. (bonus points if someone comments about isomers)
So Organic sugar or just sugar doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. Zero. I only told you I’m buying a car. It could be a Mini, it could be a Cadillac. That’s the rub.
What we should be saying to said Forces That Be in food labeling is “if it’s sucrose…then say (#%@&ing) sucrose! If it’s 73% sucrose, 16% fructose, 8% lactose and 3% glucose…then say that too. Give us, as consumers, the ability to see our food. Let us know what kind of car we’re actually driving. Then we become educated on the health effects of different sugars because we see them every day. We know them. They’re familiar. It may take a little learning but we all have pretty good ideas about the implications of sodium, cholesterol, gluten, lactose and unsaturated fats. Let glucose, sucrose and fructose actually mean something. Then we don’t need to rely on amorphous terms like ‘high concentration’ or ‘organic’ anymore…”
This is why the HFCS debate is a Bait Battle. Yes, high fructose corn syrup probably is a major reason that diabetes, hypertension, obesity, tooth decay and insurance premiums have risen over the last thirty years. But we can’t just call it a day after recognizing this reality and making an effort to avoid it. What about the sugar that goes in its place? What sugars are we ingesting now? What are its effects? Despite earthy labels, why does Heinz Ketchup still taste so good?
Follow Caleb at www.twitter.com/calebgarling
Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at