THE BLOG
04/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

High Fructose Corn Syrup: A Sweet Surprise For America?

If you google "High Fructose Corn Syrup," the first thing that pops up is www.sweetsurprise.com. It's a sponsored link, right at the top. Go to the pretty website and you'll see healthy stalks of corn poking into a clear blue sky. A racially diverse group of kids and adults are pictured smiling around tables of pancakes, cereals, berries, and cornbread.

"HFCS is the chemical and nutritional equivalent of table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition and are metabolized identically." - Arthur Frank, M.D., Medical Director, George Washington University Weight Management Program. The Washington Times, December, 6, 2006

"In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed HFCS as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996. The FDA noted that "the saccharide composition (glucose to fructose ratio) of HFCS is approximately the same as that of honey, invert sugar and the disaccharide sucrose (table sugar)." - Food and Drug Administration Federal Register, August 23, 1996

Sounds convincing. I had to retreat to Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" for a reality check.

"One of the most momentous changes in the American diet since 1909 (when the USDA first began keeping track) has been the increase in the percentage of calories coming from sugars, from 13 percent to 20 percent. Add to that the percentage of calories coming from carbohydrates (roughly 40 percent, or ten servings, nine of which are refined) and Americans are consuming a diet that is at least half sugars in one form or another--calories providing virtually nothing but energy. The energy density of these refined carbohydrates contributes to obesity in two ways. First we consume many more calories per unit of food; the fiber that's been removed from these foods is precisely what would have made us feel full and stop eating. Also, the flash flood of glucose causes insulin levels to spike and then, once the cells have taken al that glucose out of circulation, drop precipitously, making us think we need to eat again."

Pollan tells us that fructose, found naturally in seasonally ripe fruit, is full of fiber that slows absorption and allows uptake of valuable micronutrients. Sugar, as it is found in nature, gives us a slow-release form of energy accompanied by minerals and all sorts of essential micronutrients. Fructose, as it's found in food products (rather than Actual Food), is metabolized differently. The body doesn't respond to it by producing insulin to convey it into cells to be used as energy. Instead it's metabolized in the liver, which turns it first into glucose and then, when there's not enough call for more glucose, into triglycerides. Fat.

So that makes me wonder if eating an apple is like waking up from a nice nap with a refreshed, natural energy . . . while drinking a coke is like, well, doing a line of coke. Both the apple and the coke give a boost of energy. The sugar in the apple releases into the brain more slowly because of the fiber filter. The sugar in the Coke (well, Some of it) rushes to the brain immediately, giving us that nice temporary electrified feeling. But a Coke has 100% of our recommended daily allowance for sugar. All that sugar at once is generally more than our brains and body need right then and there. So with nowhere else to go, it turns into fat. Check out this fun website courtesy of Spinchange, my twitter and childhood pal, that gives us the play by play of what happens to your body when you drink a Coke.

High Fructose Corn Syrup has invaded our culture, holding court in supermarkets everywhere. It has even made the leap to the small screen, starring in a series of TV ads defending its honor. It reminds me of when Aniston, Rihanna, or any other blown-up celebrity drama hits the scene. It's everywhere for a period of time until we move on to the next drama. The players in celebrity drama trade places like most people change their underwear. But HFCS is here to stay. Along with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Now that's star power and a sweet surprise!

It doesn't matter so much how we feel about High Fructose Corn Syrup's popularity and its omnipresence. It matters what we all do about it in our own supermarkets and at our own tables. As Michael Pollan says, we can vote with our fork. Snapple apparently is listening, by getting rid of HFCS. According to Linda Tischler's article in Fast Company, "the brand will roll out a new look, and new formula which, Snapple execs promise, has been thoroughly tested with the average Joes who form its target market. 'We talked to Lennie in Manhattan, Hymie in Brooklyn, and Arnie in the Bronx,' says Snapple Marketing VP Bryan Mazur. (Childhood friends Leonard Marsh, Hyman Golden and Arnold Greenburg started the company in Greenwich Village in 1972.)"

During my research I twittered: "Researching the rise to small screen fame of HFCS." Within minutes I got a tweet from HiFrucCornSyrup (not a follower, which leads me to believe they search for "HFCS" all day on Twitter). I was a little bit creeped out, in a sci-fi movie kind of way, where everyone is walking around comatose with chips in their arms, feeding their babies HFCS by the bottle, straight up! The following is our exchange of Tweets culminating in an email response. If this isn't a PR firm for the sugar lobby, than it must be an 8-year-old boy addicted to Mountain Dew!

HiFrucCornSyrup: If you have any questions, I'll be happy to answer them. It hasn't been an easy journey.

TaraStiles: I'm writing for HuffPo, are you with the sweet surprise people?

HiFrucCornSyrup: No association with sweet surprise, whoever they are. I'm a complex enough carbohydrate to stand up for myself.

And now for a brief interlude of some of my favorite HiFruCornSyrup tweets to put things in perspective:

Some of my favorite HiFruCornSyrup tweets...

Grrrrr. Snapple introducing new drink that uses sugar instead of me. Way to keep a good sweetener down, you Snapple-jerks

More lies!!! http://tr.im/h2UX When will these deliciousness-intolerant research nerds stop scapegoating me? I must get a lawyer.

(HFC is mad about Monifa Thomas's piece in the Chicago Sun Times linking kidney disease in women to the consumption of HFCS in sodas, or as we call them in the Midwest, pop)

@winstix Sounds like somebody needs a Twinkie. Or a Mountain Dew. Or some Wheat Thins (yep, I'm in those too)

@winstix See. I'm delicious, and I kill rats. What more could America ask for??

@fiftiesframes Toss in a little high fructose corn syrup and you've got yourself a cake!

And my personal favorite:

@tetsuzan I once went to Congress to argue the merits of raising lobsters in vats of high fructose corn syrup. It makes the meat SO sweet.

And now for the email exchange. PS, I'm sure whoever this is would love to hear from all of you!

From highfruccornsyrup@yahoo.com:

Nice to hear from you. I want to stress that I am a totally independent substance, not advocating for any company or organization or group. Just a highly refined liquid sweetner trying to make it in the world.

Ever since I was a polysaccharide, I've heard people bad mouthing my kind. My father, a broad-cobbed ear of northern Iowa corn, raised me right, teaching me to never abandon my roots. He's gone now -- wound up in a Twinkie sold in Lewiston, Idaho, while my dear mother, Cornelia, was last seen floating in a hog trough outside Frankfort, Indiana. It's for them that I crusade, hoping to rid the world of syrupism.

I suppose it's nice to see people taking to the airwaves to defend sweetners like myself, but I refuse to become a part of any widespread corporate campaign. You'll never see me becoming a celebrity spokes-syrup. I'm more of a loner, the Batman of isoglucose.

I don't even care whether or not people want to ingest me -- that's up to them. If it's bad for humans to eat me, well, then they shouldn't do it. You think I want to see the inside of the average American? Blech.

All I'm looking for here is a little respect. I never asked to be turned in to an inexpensive, easily transportable, enzymatically processed sucrose substitute. I was just manufactured that way.

Hope this helps. And if for any reason you wind up talking to aspartame, keep one thing in mind: That dude's a total phony!

Later.

- The Frucster

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.