12/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Is It Easier To Buy A Gun Than High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

Full disclosure: I am neither a scientist nor a health freak. My primary sources of energy through most of college, where I studied esoteric social thinkers like Jurgen Habermas, were Haribo Gummy Bears and animal crackers from the vending machine. I leave it to others to lecture you on why consuming high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse for you than plain old table sugar, honey, lack of sleep, a sedentary life-style, binge-drinking, and watching daytime soaps. My aim here is to alert you to an odd phenomenon: despite it being in nearly 80% of everything we eat - from bread and ketchup to drinks and salad dressing - it's nearly impossible for an ordinary citizen (me) to purchase pure HFCS. Anywhere.

Let's start with the science. What is HFCS? You take corn, make corn starch from it, create corn syrup from that, add enzymes which allow the corn syrup to contain a higher amount of fructose than usual, and then mix that with pure corn syrup (100% glucose). The product is manipulated, using a process that includes alpha-amylase, oligosaccharides, and xylose isomerase, into a syrup that is anywhere from 90% fructose/10% glucose to 42% fructose/58% glucose. This is then offered to the layman as "natural." Apparently only the addition of aluminum flakes or bat guano could persuade the FDA to label it otherwise. In fact, strike the bat guano - come to think of it, that's natural, ain't it?

But let's take a step back. What, on earth, compelled anyone to use xylose isomerase and oligosaccharides in the first place? Why not just be happy with sugar cane, beets, or good old corn syrup?

When sugar tariffs in the 1970s caused the cost of imported sugar to sky-rocket, American food chemists working late into the night created this cheap alternative, which was immediately injected into tons of foodstuffs. American consumption went through the roof, and over the next few decades, nutritionists started taking note of the coincident rise in obesity and health problems associated with poor diets.

The main point here is: HFCS is as sweet as table sugar, but cheaper, and many argue, much worse for you.

Last summer, its biggest proponent, the Corn Refiners Association (I hope they have a t-shirt and I can get one) launched a defensive ad campaign. One commercial shows a couple lying on a picnic blanket, and when the girlfriend offers her boyfriend a Popsicle, he responds "I thought you loved me." At this point I stopped paying attention to the Corn Refiners message (HFCS is "natural" and "fine in moderation") and wondered what I would do if I got such a hostile response upon presenting my boyfriend with a frozen cylinder of fruit juice. Then it occurred to me that the CRA marketing team must stoke up all day on free soft drinks laced with HFCS, so by the time they decide on a commercial, they're at the bottom of their insulin curve, are suicidally depressed, and have the collective concentration of an avocado. So maybe I shouldn't hold it against them.

But if we take the CRA's message at face value, if HFCS is truly harmless when used in moderation, why isn't it next to sugar and honey on the shelves of your local supermarket?

At culinary school the other day, during our mandatory nutrition class, our instructor told us how he'd procured some: the father of one of his students worked at one of the 16 chemical plants in the "corn belt" that manufactured it. He had a corn insider. Still, in order to get it he'd had to fill out reams of paperwork and do everything short of get fingerprinted in the process. And once it finally arrived, he ingested a single teaspoon and was immediately overcome with a 20-minute sugar headache (during which time another chef purloined the sample, took the container to an undisclosed location, and tried unsuccessfully to replicate the recipe for Coca-Cola).

Bottom line is: the only live lead I found on my hunt for HFCS, after extensive research, was one Mr. Meng Qinghao of No. 18 Luzhou Road Yishui, Shandong, China 276440, who welcomes any calls from prospective buyers of his high-fructose corn syrup.

What's the big idea?

Summoning the power of the blog and the comment system built therein, I entreat you to answer my question and weigh in: is this a conspiracy? By whom? Is HFCS a drug? Will people soon figure this out and start producing manipulated corn syrup in their bathtubs under the cover of night?

I have hope that by opening up this question to the masses, I'll elicit some truth and throw the cover off of some vast governmental plot. In that, I am similar to none other than Jurgen Habermas, who believed that the public sphere - a space of critical discussion in which anyone could participate - would, and could, form a necessary check against government power.

Of course, he wrote The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere before ever eating an HFCS-laced animal cracker.