Friday, March 6, 2009

How sweet

A couple of years ago, back when people were just starting to raise questions about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), my sister C. sent out an email highlighting some of the concerns about the correlation between HFCS and obesity, and about the quantities of HFCS found in soft drinks. I was living in the UK at the time. I remember sitting at my desk in Oxford and reading it, and then looking guiltily at the can of Pepsi sitting on the desk next to my computer. I picked up the can to read the ingredients list and found…sugar as the sweetening ingredient. I went home and checked our stash of processed foods (ketchup, store-bought cookies, cereal); all of them said the same: sugar.

The drumbeat of concern about HFCS has gotten steadily louder since then, and just over the last few weeks I’ve lost count of how many times it’s popped up on food blogs and newspaper feeds that I read regularly. Prompting me to do another check on my recently-established stash of Australian processed foods (as above). Only to find the same thing: sugar as the sweetening ingredient in everything I checked.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing the reason for this is that neither the UK nor Australia has enough of a corn industry to make HFCS a cheap and easily available alternative to other sugar sources. The UK has a domestic beet sugar industry (as do most other European countries), and Australia produces cane sugar. Wikipedia says that "HFCS is somewhat cheaper in the United States due to a combination of corn subsidies and sugar tariffs", and also says that its greatest use is in the US and Canada.

I have mixed feelings about this information. On the one hand, I’m just as happy not to be finding HFCS in every packaged food I buy. On the other hand is the fact that obesity rates are going up not just in the US, but also in the UK and Australia, and, apparently, everyplace else other than sub-Saharan Africa. If only the US and Canada are consuming this stuff in any quantity, then clearly there is more to the problem.

Lately it seems as though we have a new nutritional scapegoat every year or so: the thing to eliminate from humanity’s diet that will "cure" the worldwide obesity epidemic. This year looks like HFCS’s turn. Before that it was trans fats. And let’s not forget carbs.

If science and medicine don't know the answer, then I certainly don’t. But, given that pretty much everything to do with food is a complicated tangle of nutrition and emotion, I’m betting it’s not as simple as that.


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