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Sickly Sweet

The omnipresence of high-fructose corn syrup should leave a bad taste in your mouth

By Molly M. Strauss

The scene: a birthday party. Two mothers converse as one pours a cup full of red liquid. The other, skeptical because she knows the drink in question contains high-fructose corn syrup, remarks: “Wow, you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?” Mom One responds with a blasé chuckle, noting that “it’s made from corn, it’s natural, and, like sugar, it’s fine in moderation.” Clearly embarrassed and relieved, Mom Two smiles… and takes a sip.

This commercial, and others like it, claims to provide “the facts” about America’s ubiquitous sweetener. Who’s behind them? The American Medical Association? An unbiased public health organization? The United States government? Not even close: the Corn Refiners Association.

Clearly, the industry is terrified. As more and more Americans join health-food aficionados in regarding high fructose corn syrup as basically poison and more and more consumers choose products that don’t contain it, the CRA faces a crisis in the making. It desperately needs to draw a line between high-fructose corn syrup and junk food in the American mind. And so began an 18-month campaign in late June 2008 to promote the substance. The CRA’s website, sweetsurprise.com, includes quotes from “experts” to assure consumers of high- fructose corn syrup’s benignity, a “myth vs. fact” section, not to mention images of smiling, adorable kids and wholesome stalks of corn bedecking the background. The CRA’s name appears only once on the main page, in tiny print at the very bottom.

The premise of the campaign—that the sweetener is no more harmful than other, similar substances—certainly seems surprising. Since results from the scientific community vary (despite the CRA’s attempts to convince us otherwise), there’s definite reason for pause. But arguments over high-fructose corn syrup’s intrinsic dangers actually overlook the crux of the issue. Ultimately, it’s our unwitting over-consumption of the substance and the environmental impacts of this consumption that prove most troubling.

The key to understanding our lack of moderation lies buried in the CRA’s very own website, which states that, “High fructose corn syrup often plays a key role in the integrity of food and beverage products that has little to do with sweetening.” In other words, Americans consume a huge amount of the substance without knowing it. Even if high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t contribute more to obesity than other types of “caloric sweeteners,” everyone agrees that eating endless quantities of sugar and caloric sugar substitutes leads to weight gain.

Recently, I opened up my aunt’s refrigerator and pantry to investigate. I discovered the ingredient in some obviously sweet places, like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Schweppes ginger ale. But it also appeared in Heinz Ketchup, KC Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce, and Wishbone Italian dressing. It’s safe to say that most Americans don’t account for ketchup and salad dressing when keeping track of their sugar intake. Sweetsurprise.com lists multiple places where high fructose corn syrup serves a purpose: in breads, canned and frozen fruits, yogurt, spaghetti sauces, and beverages. Who knew?

High-fructose corn syrup poses a threat beyond simple health concerns. Michael Pollan, renowned author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” notes in the Washington Post that the substance “may be cheap in the supermarket, but in the environment it could not be more expensive.” The American corn industry, which produces grain en masse, relies on monoculture: growing one crop on the same land year after year, which depletes soil and requires large quantities of fertilizers. As Pollan writes, this lack of “diversified agriculture” creates incredible dependence on nitrogen—leading to detrimental environmental effects: “By fertilizing the world, we alter the planet’s composition of species and shrink its biodiversity.” Consuming high-fructose corn syrup, a key product of this industry, reinforces the monoculture cycle. And, since U.S. government subsidies maintain low corn prices, the sweetener remains cheap and highly desirable for food producers. They’re unlikely to abandon it any time soon.

Pollan’s books, along with Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” and the documentary “Supersize Me,” aim to open Americans’ eyes to consequences of the meals they unconsciously eat. High-fructose corn syrup belongs in this discussion—and out of our stomachs—despite what the Corn Refiners Association wants us to think.

Molly M. Strauss ’11, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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