Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sugar vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup

When my friends and I talk about sugar, usually we are talking about all sugars in a general sense. Like 'that glass of chocolate milk has 16 grams of sugar'. The 16 grams are made up of a mix of lactose, sucrose or fructose and glucose (and probably others). All those -ose's together are what we talk about.

When I am talking about SUGAR on this week's posts I need to be more specific. The sugar I mentioned yesterday was all what we'd think of as table sugar, pure crystalline sucrose. Sucrose is a diasaccharide composed of glucose and fructose bonded together with a relatively weak molecular bond. That bond is broken when it's in your tummy being digested.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is different.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is produced by milling corn to produce starch, then processing that starch to yield corn syrup (think Karo Pecan Pie ingredients). Standard corn syrup is almost entirely glucose and doesn't taste as sweet to the human tongue as sucrose (or table sugar) does. Regular corn syrup was all we had for a while, but it doesn't fit the bill as a sugar replacement because it just doesn't taste right. Anyone who has tasted Karo knows what I am talking about. But in 1957 Richard O. Marshall and Earl P. Kooi added enzymes to that glucose corn syrup. Those enzymes changed most of the glucose into fructose.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is derived by mixing the original standard corn syrup (almost pure glucose) and the altered corn syrup (overwhelmingly fructose). The more fructose you add, the sweeter the mixture tastes on the tongue. HFCS 55 is 55% fructose and has a comparable sweetness to table sugar, only in liquid form. And that is the particular HFCS that is used to make soda.

Why is this significant? The current US Sugar policy began in 1934 to shore up prices for cane sugar. They implemented a price floor so that sugar(cane and beet) grown in the US would fetch a higher price when it was sold domestically. These policies are still in place, and so consequently the price of sugar in the US is about three times as high as the world market.

Conversely, The US Government has been, since the Depression, subsidizing corn growers (among many other growers of commodities). Every year the government sets a price floor for corn that is slightly above the free market price. Let's say that price is $3.00 a bushel. The government promises that every farmer will get no less than $3.00 for every bushel of corn, plus they give every farmer an additional 52 cents(at least that was the 2002 number) on top of that floor price. If the price of corn comes in at $2.95 the government will give that farmer the 52 cent subsidy plus the 5 cent difference between the market price and the floor price of corn, and they will do that for EVERY bushel of corn that farmer sells.

As a result, the only way to make more money as a corn farmer is to grow more corn. More bushels equals more money in your pocket. Only problem is, the more corn there is, the lower the price goes. Nowadays because of these subsidies, we have a whole lot of corn, and a whole lot of farmers who struggle to break even as the price of corn drives lower.

Now I am not going to sit here and bad mouth the Farm Bill. That is not the purpose of my writing. And I am not an economist, nor do I have a formal background in agriculture (or any background other than hailing from a state that still boasts a state agricultural college). But I do know that these policies create an oversupply of commodities like corn. And this over supply gives food processors access to a steady stream of cheap raw materials. The thing that is important about this is that since the thirties the price of sugar has been rising due to the policies surrounding sugar. That makes food made with sugar more expensive. But the price of corn has been falling, or at least holding steady amid inflation and other economic changes. And that makes food made out of corn less expensive. The next step is an easy one.......food processors put HFCS in everything these days because it became cheaper than sugar. And because it is liquid, it is super easy to make it into products like soda and baked good. This has been a win for the processors.

People recently have been fighting back against HFCS and I think they should. As a result, processors are removing it from hundreds of products. They are now advertising having real cane sugar as an ingredient as a health benefit. But because of the switch to sugar, food prices will naturally go up. I wish the dialogue out there at the water cooler, on the playground and on the Internet was more about eliminating HFCS from our diet rather than just replacing it with cane sugar. There has been some talk about HFCS being worse for you than sugar, or being more likely to trigger obesity. And there may be something to it. But I think that if you looked at enough studies and info on the subject you would see that obesity rates have climbed since HFCS has started being included in virtually every food except whole foods. The overall number of calories that are daily consumed by the average American have increased over the last 30 years. I think that better explains our current rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

In my reading I did uncover some interesting finds.

Coca-Cola switched it's operations to use HFCS in 1984. But they still make soda with sugar in other nations where the price remains low. Mexico is one of those countries. Apparently you can find this Mexican Coca-Cola in ethnic groceries. And some people swear they can tell the difference. I was allergic to something in the Coca-Cola formula while I was a child, so I did not have my first Coke until probably 1990. So I am sure that I have never had a Coke made with sugar.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest threatened a lawsuit against Cadbury-Schweppes in 2006 for labeling 7Up as "All Natural". The FDA has no legal definition of the word 'natural'. FDA regulations do define "natural flavoring" to include products of vegetables. The FDA has since stated that the agency does not object to labeling HFCS as "natural". But the CSPI does not believe that HFCS is a "natural" ingredient due to the high level of processing require to make it. (Neither do I) But in early 2007 Cadbury-Schweppes agreed to stop calling 7Up "All Natural" and they now label it "100% Natural Flavors", which does comply to the FDA definition.

And just in case you were waiting for me to say it, whole foods do not have any added sugar of any kind.

High-fructose corn syrup. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. wikipedia.org 11 June, 2010.

Agriculture subsidy. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. wikipedia.org 9 June, 2010.

Sugar and Sweetners Policy. USDA Economic Research Servie Briefing Rooms. ers.usda.gov 9 June, 2010.

Virata, Gillian. The Effects of the U.S. Sugar Policy. internationalecon.com 9 June, 2010.

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