Sweet Surprise

12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Christiana Wyly Executive Director of the Food Choice Taskforce, Coordinator of the My Plate My Planet Initiative

The commercial informs me that I am in for a sweet surprise. A sweet surprise?? Oh yes, I am surprised. Shocked might be a better word. Or perhaps appalled. The other day while traveling I found myself flipping channels on a hotel gym TV. Then this commercial came on:

I almost flew off the treadmill. I couldn't believe my eyes. That I was actually watching a commercial for High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Two mothers at a kid's birthday party advocating impossibly purple juice as delicious and nutritious.

Does anyone else have a problem with this?

I wasn't sure which voice in me was reacting. Was it the voice of the mother in me that strives, against the grain of my culture, to provide my child with wholesome nutrition to feed her growing brain and body; to give her a healthy foundation that will support her throughout her life?

Was it the voice of the former board member of Children's Health Foundation in me that worked so diligently to reform public school nutrition and educate children and their families about life-threatening obesity and diabetes epidemics, not to mention the healthcare cost to US taxpayers? Or was it the environmental advocate in me that is passionate about creating good policy and practices to promote the long-term health of our soil and waterways and cant stand to see more subsidies going to corn?

As a mother I am offended because it misinforms mothers that already struggle through the mixed messages in the media about what they should or shouldn't feed their children. In the commercial they make the concerned mother seem stupid and uninformed, while the woman with the tub of neon juice seems intelligent and articulate.

The mother says "like sugar, (HFCS) is fine in moderation." Moderation? High Fructose Corn Syrup has 55% of the US sweetener market with 4.5 billion in annual sales. In 2003, Americans consumed 61 pounds per person! If that is moderate, what would excessive look like?

The major problem is that people are not aware of how much they consume because it is not sold in a bottle direct to the consumer. HFCS is in sodas, juices, cereal, snack foods, deserts, jams, condiments, wine, crackers and even "whole grain" breads and other "natural" packaged products on the shelves. Walk into any grocery store and investigate what % of the grocery store has packaged/processed/preserved foods? To me, that is not food. It's edible stuff. The shelves are lined with stuff that pretty much just shuffles the same ingredients into new shapes and pretty new packaging.

The commercial is actually suggesting that giving HFCS to our children is nutritious. Since the late 1970s, one-fifth of toddlers have been given eight ounces of soda every day. Almost half of all children between the ages of six and eleven have consumed an average of fifteen ounces per day. And teens? Between 23 and 30. 64-oz big gulps have 800 calories and 53 teaspoons of sugar (HFCS). That doesn't even factor in all the JUICE they drink. Children are unable to focus in school largely because they have a dose of kiddie-crack for breakfast.

As a children's health advocate, I feel that we need to be educating our consumers on negative health impact of this over-used sweetener. As an environmental advocate, I am extremely concerned about the amount of land used for corn production, and the use of this excessive monocrop. Nationwide, corn is being grown on 93 million acres this year, a 19 percent increase over last year.

Farmers are growing more corn because strong demand -- driven largely by the rush to produce ethanol for fuel -- has pushed corn prices far above the long-term average. While the boom in corn provides economic benefits to agriculture, it also entails a number of environmental costs.

A more immediate potential impact of planting more corn is increased nutrient pollution in waterways, a problem that stretches from the upper Midwest all the way to the oxygen-starved, "dead zone" that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each summer. (where does your shrimp come from again??) At some 7,900 square miles, this year's dead zone is the third largest since monitoring began in 1985.

Of course agriculture isn't alone in the creation of this problem, which is also fed by discharges from industry and sewage treatment plants, as well as fertilizer in runoff from urban and suburban landscaping. (ahem- your lawn) But given conventional regimens for fertilizing corn and soybeans, an increase in corn acres would be expected to exacerbate the nutrient problem.

Now watch the second commercial:

Am I actually hearing the words Natural and Nutritious? If you loved me you would give me two bites? Look very very closely at the end -- at the fine print -- Paid for by the Corn Refiners Association. Based in Washington, D.C., the Corn Refiners Association is the national trade association representing the corn refining (wet milling) industry of the United States.

Of course they would want to protect the image of their dearly beloved golden child. It makes sense for them economically, and on the surface it sounds good. It's a wholesome American home-grown crop. Lately its been getting a bad wrap. So they had to fight back and protect their baby.

There is nothing more wholesome and truly American as corn. Corn. Sweet Corn. Would we have survived settling in America if not for our saving grace- Zea Maize? Will we survive as a nation if we remain addicted as citizens, to an industry that is slowly poisoning us, depleting our soil, polluting our rivers, toying with genetic mutation, and scarfing our tax dollars?

Unsustainable is the catch phrase we throw around to everything not 'eco'. But it actually means something. It means that the current open loop system is not economically, ecologically or socially sustainable into the future. This crop that we have become overly dependent on, and the practices we have developed to cultivate it, will not sustain us.

These artificially simplified carbohydrates, which are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream, provide quick energy. When we are starving, we are genetically programmed to eat lots of concentrated high-calorie foods when they are available. Unfortunately we are over-stuffed on calories and starved for nutrition.

What are we starving for? We are addicted to corn like we are addicted to sugar like we are addicted to oil. It's the cheap oil that enables the production of the cheap corn in the first place.

We are addicted to the cheap highs that enable us to get quick cheap energy. Be it corn-based ethanol or high fructose corn syrup, we don't need it in our motors or in our bodies or competing in the marketplace of food and fuel with a highly subsidized head start. We need a national rehab to get us off this destructive cycle.

Moderation? Fine yes, I am with you. I use "in moderation" as my excuse for all my vices, so I can grant them that one, but it's in everything! Most people don't even know that they are eating it! In the mass quantities in which we consume it, not only is it bad for our bodies, our children, but also for the soil and waterways and, ultimately, the interdependent life support systems that sustain us.