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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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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

FDA "Cautions" HFCS Pushers Over "Corn Sugar"

You know, when I was a kid we took our garbage to the town dump. A guy named “Shorty” worked there, burying the garbage with a bulldozer. We called him “the Dump Man."

Nowadays, of course, we take our “solid waste” to the “sanitary landfill” where it can be “processed” by “sanitation engineers.” We're still just taking our garbage to the dump, but now it sounds so much better.

That's the theory behind the Corn Refiners Association's effort to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup. On the heels of more and more studies that essentially call the substance “garbage,” the producers – or “pushers,” as I like to label them – are pulling out all the stops in an effort to give the stuff a new image by calling it “corn sugar.” It just sounds so much better.

When I first reported on this issue last year in an article entitled “The Corn Sugar Scam; What's In a Name,” I quoted Shakespeare's familiar citation, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Now comes news that the FDA still thinks the whole thing stinks.

See, the pushers petitioned the FDA to allow them to make the change, prevaricating that "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)." Then they just went on ahead and did it. They launched a televised ad campaign and set up websites, one of which uses “cornsugar” in the URL. They “petitioned,” alright, but operating under the old adage, “it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission,” they didn't bother waiting for approval. And because the specious ad campaign does not seek to promote a particular product, but rather an entire industry, the FDA is something of a toothless tiger regarding its ability to regulate the advertising.

But even toothless tigers don't like having their tails pulled. In a July 12, 2011 letter obtained by the Associated Press, Barbara Schneeman, an FDA director, wrote to the Corn Refiners Association to say she was concerned with the pushers' interchangeable use of the terms “high fructose corn syrup” and "corn sugar.” "We request that you re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term 'corn sugar' as a synonym for (high fructose corn syrup)."

That, of course, drew an immediate response from the pushers; they yawned. Then they sent the AP a blah-blah e-mail promising to review materials and to make changes if necessary. In other words – specifically the words of W.C. Fields, – “Go away, kid, ya bother me!”

But it appears the tiger does have at least one good tooth: the FDA can bust any food producer who actually uses the phony term in place of “high-fructose corn syrup” on any food packaging.

All this comes after the pushers had already been shot down by the FDA when they attempted to get permission to drop the words “high-fructose” and just call their product “corn syrup.” An FDA official called the effort “misleading.” Ya think? This despite the fact that seven pork-addicted senators from Corn Belt states filed a letter backing the “corn syrup” snow job in the interest of clearing up “consumer confusion.”

But the writing's on the wall; in a recent survey, Kraft, Gatorade, Pepsi, Hunt's, Heinz, Starbucks, Sara Lee and a slew of other manufacturers have all removed HFCS from some of their product lines in response to consumer concerns. And now the restaurant industry is jumping on the bandwagon. Chains and privately owned eateries alike are beginning to dump HFCS from their menus, both in response to consumer demands and as a result of trying to upgrade to more healthy, natural offerings. Wait for it.....here come the pushers......”Corn is a natural product!!!” Yeah, so is hemlock. Want a cup?

Besides – and restaurant chefs are discovering this, too – anything made with the cheap, nasty crap tastes cheap and nasty. Pat Herring, the Research and Development guy for one of my favorite places, Jason's Deli, puts it best when he says, “Food today has so many ingredients that we've kind of dumbed-down our tastebuds.” He referred to HFCS – which is conspicuously absent at Jason's – as sounding “chemical-y” when compared to sugar and/or honey and sagely adds that nobody goes to the pantry and gets a little HFCS to add to their morning cereal.

And with corn prices on the rise, HFCS isn't going to be a bargain much longer, so a lot of food manufacturers are killing two birds with one stone; they're trimming costs by reverting to cane sugar and they're looking like health-conscious consumer crusaders at the same time. Win-win!

Excuse me, now. I'm going to go knock back a Sierra Mist and fix a sandwich made with Jif Peanut Butter on some Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural Bread. Maybe a little Mott's Natural Applesauce on the side. And some Archway Molasses Cookies or a little Dove chocolate for dessert. (All HFCS-free products.)

Call it what you will, tempus fugit, high-fructose corn syrup. The hands on the popularity clock are nearing midnight and your fancied-up Cinderella product is about to become a plain old ear of corn again.

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