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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The “Corn Sugar” Scam–What’s In a Name?

Shakespeare said it: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So what, exactly, is the Corn Refiners Association trying to accomplish in their bid to rename high fructose corn syrup? Now they want to call the controversial substance “corn sugar,” and have petitioned the FDA to allow them to do so on food labels.
Have they discovered some new chemical property to justify the change? Is there a new process involved in the manufacturing. No and no. It's merely a marketing gimmick designed to boost flagging sales as more and more consumers become aware of what they are ingesting.
Much like rapeseed oil producers figured – correctly – that “canola oil” was a more marketable term and purveyors of prunes assumed the public would go gaga for “dried plums,” “corn sugar” is nothing more than an obvious attempt to give a pig a facelift. “Pig,” of course, being the operative word.
For those who may not know, high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener derived from corn. Because it is much cheaper to produce – thanks to generous subsidies – than pure cane sugar, processed food manufacturers have been loading up on the stuff for about the last forty years or so. Coincidentally, American obesity rates began skyrocketing at about the same point in the timeline.
Corn interests will assert that the precipitous climb is just that: a coincidence. Nutritionists, however, are not convinced, and so the battle rages.
Everybody has science on their side. The pro-HFCS folks line up “recent study” after “recent study” to support their premise that sugar is sugar. Once the substance is ingested, they say, the body does not differentiate between the chemical composition of corn sweetener and cane or beet sugar. And they bring out the big guns to back their claim. According to an article circulated by the Associated Press, the American Medical Association – a group often suspected of holding its board meetings in a “Waffle” House – claims there's not enough evidence yet to restrict the use of high fructose corn syrup. Note the qualifier “yet.” The association says it does, however, want more research. And Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest – an organization noted for attacking movie theater popcorn and advocating taxation of soft drinks – has somewhat inexplicably stated that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same. Echoing the corn industry's PR hacks, Jacobson avers that there is no evidence substantiating that corn sweetener is any worse for the body than sugar. Of course, he then goes on to raise the hymn that people should consume less of all sugars.
Leading the charge in the opposite direction are Princeton University and Duke University. The Princeton research team has produced evidence that the substances in question are not equal in terms of weight gain, citing experiments in which rats on HFCS gained significantly more weight than those consuming regular sugar. Further, they claim, long-term consumption of HFCS leads to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and to a rise in triglycerides, the circulating blood fats often associated with heart disease. And the docs at Duke, publishing in the “Journal of Hepatology,” link HFCS to a heightened risk of liver damage. “We found that increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup was associated with scarring in the liver … among patients with NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease),” said researcher Manal Abdelmalek.
“Diabetes Health” magazine weighs in with a scholarly explanation of the difference between HFCS and sugar. In an article originally published in May 2005 and republished as part of a treatise on “The Dangers of High-Fructose Corn Syrup” in August 2008, it is stated that HFCS is a blend of glucose and fructose, and it is acknowledged that HFCS, like all sugars and all carbohydrates, have four calories per gram. This is the lynch pin upon which the “sugar is sugar” claim hangs. But, the magazine goes on to explain, “glucose (dextrose) is a monosaccharide (basically, a simple sugar), which is the form of sugar that is transported in the blood and is used by the body for energy... Fructose, also a monosaccharide,... is the primary carbohydrate in most fruits. It’s also the primary sugar in honey and half the carbohydrate in sucrose (table sugar). However, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or require insulin to be transported into cells, as do other carbohydrates. Insulin controls leptin, which is the hormone responsible for telling your body to stop eating when it’s full by signaling the brain to stop sending hunger signals. Since fructose doesn’t stimulate glucose levels and insulin release, there’s no increase in leptin levels or feeling of satiety.” This, Diabetes Health states, “can leave you ripe for unhealthy weight gain.” The magazine concludes that “fructose requires a different metabolic pathway than other carbohydrates because it basically skips glycolysis (normal carbohydrate metabolism). Because of this, fructose is an unregulated source of “acetyl CoA,” or the starting material for fatty acid synthesis. This, coupled with unstimulated leptin levels, is like opening the flood gates of fat deposition.”
There are also claims of HFCS being carcinogenic, but then, what isn't anymore?
Numerous published reports quote First Lady Michelle Obama's refusal to allow her children to consume products containing HFCS. And she is just the high profile tip of a very large public opinion iceberg that is inexorably grinding down American consumption to a twenty-year low. PepsiCo has scored big with its “Throwback” line of soft drinks, conspicuously sweetened with “real sugar.” Although this limited product line hardly absolves the soft drink giant from decades of HFCS abuse, it is widely seen as a step in the right direction. Sara Lee has taken similar steps, recently switching back to the use of sugar in some of its breads. Numerous other food manufacturers, including Gatorade and Hunt's Ketchup, have also climbed aboard the sugar bandwagon in recent months.
The corn people are preparing for combat by marching up and down Madison Avenue. They haven't actually gotten approval on “corn sugar” yet, but that's just a technicality in the ad biz. So expect to see the term flung far and wide as the marketing campaign gears up. There's already a website, http://www.cornsugar.com/, and TV commercials chanting the “sugar is sugar” mantra will be airing soon.
Meanwhile, according to the AP, the petition up for FDA consideration states, "the name 'corn sugar' more accurately reflects the source of the food (corn), identifies the basic nature of the food (a sugar), and discloses the food's function (a sweetener)." Yeah, and if my granny had wheels, she'd be a wagon.
To be fair – and I do occasionally try to be fair – the scientific jury is still out, as I've already alluded. And as is the case with most hot button topics, journalists – myself included – can “cherry-pick” from dozens of opposing sources to support their opinions. I just happen to think mine is right!
But until somebody more qualified than I can come up with something concrete, the Mayo Clinic probably has the best answer, found at mayoclinic.com and quoted verbatim: “If you're concerned about the amount of high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners in your diet, consider these tips: Limit processed foods; avoid foods that contain added sugar; choose fresh fruit rather than fruit juice or fruit-flavored drinks. Even 100 percent fruit juice has a high concentration of sugar; choose fruit canned in its own juices instead of heavy syrup; drink less soda; don't allow sweetened beverages to replace milk, especially for children.”
Wherever you stand on the HFCS vs sugar issue, there's not much room for argument there.
In the meantime, I'll let my taste memory and my palate be my guides. I'm old enough to remember the “pre-HFCS glut” era when nearly everything was made with sugar and, doggone-it, everything just tasted better. And if I accidentally improve my health while satisfying my taste buds, it's a win-win situation, right?
Final thought: In their last ad campaign, the Corn Growers Association strove to ridicule people who questioned the “naturalness” of HFCS, basically saying, “It's made of corn. What could be more natural?” Now they're going to hammer the same nail from a different direction. But have you seen the rebuttal ads from the sugar producers? Neither have I. Pure cane sugar doesn't have to justify itself any more than butter has to claim that it tastes better than margarine. Everybody knows that. So, like margarine, HFCS is out there whistling in the wind and trying to gin up its image as a superior product. Won't happen. Because it's not true. Real butter is better than fake. Real sugar is better than any cheap substitute.
But don't feel to bad for the corn industry. They still have their government subsidies and I understand they're making a real killing in Mexico and other “developing markets.” A real killing. Kind of like the tobacco companies did when US sales started to drop. Hmmm....there's a comparison to think about.

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