Where The Sugar Comes From

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Why are diabetes rates rising around the world? One possible culprit is the increased amount of sugar people are eating. Most sugar isn’t white powder spooned into tea or frosting on a cake. It’s hidden. Where is it, and where did it come from?

The simple answer is “corn.” In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food researcher and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan explains that whatever you eat in America, it’s mostly corn.

Any food that comes in a package is likely full of corn. Citing Pollan, Washington Post writer Bunny Crumpacker states, “Corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup are in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills.” And that’s not even focusing on high-fructose (extra-sugary) corn syrup. “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based.”

Corn hardly stops there. Food additives, like the wax applied to fruits and vegetables to make them shine, have corn in them. Perhaps not all of this counts as sugar, but it’s all carbohydrate and most of it is in there for its sweetening or thickening qualities. Even the shelves and signs in the supermarket contain corn. It’s probably not good for you, especially not with every meal.

On the Web site Ecoliteracy, Pollan writes, “Take a typical fast food meal. Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget — including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce — is all corn. The French fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn… Of the 37 ingredients in chicken nuggets, something like 30 are made, directly or indirectly, from corn.”

Going low-carb, high-protein is no defense. Most beef and pork is corn-fed. Likewise chickens, turkeys, eggs, even farmed fish. True, eating corn in the form of a cow doesn’t add sugar to your diet. It just adds saturated fats that are quite different from and less healthy than the fat in grass-fed animals.

People are starting to worry about all this packaged hidden sugar, especially the HFCS. So the corn industry is trying to repackage HFCS as “corn sugar”, which maybe sounds less threatening. The front page of the industry site quotes scientists saying things like “HFCS is just sugar, and affects the body the same way as sugar. It’s no worse.” If that’s true, though, we should still be as careful about it as we would with sugar.

It’s also worth noting that industrial corn growing is an ecological disaster. According to Pollan, It takes a 1/3 of a gallon of oil to grow a bushel of corn on a commercial American farm. That oil ends up somewhere, in water, air, soil, or our food. And it’s running out. (That’s why the idea of ethanol, turning corn into fuel to run cars, is so insane. It takes almost as much or more oil to grow and produce the ethanol as you get back from using it. Problematic as it is, feeding corn to people and animals is far better than feeding it to cars.)

If corn is in pretty much all packaged food and all fast food, I would vote for avoiding those foods. According to Pollan and others, 90% of American food dollars are spent on processed (usually corn-based) foods in one form or another. While I’ve got nothing against corn as a plant, it seems we should be diversifying our diets.

One caution — it’s not good to be a purist about such things. I’m pretty sure the occasional packaged snack won’t hurt you, but they should probably be infrequent treats. And perhaps even that restriction is too strict. Are there packaged foods that are good to eat? Is it possible to eat an entirely whole-food diet? If you’ve tried that, how does it work for you?

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