Rewind – HFCS, Corn, and Mercury

On rewind days, I bring you a post that has previously appeared at my other now-defunct blog, Right to Bleed. If you’ve read it before, skip on by, or go ahead and enjoy the rewind.
This post combines two previous posts, one from January and one from February 2009

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Holy shit?!

I knew watching television was bad for me, and I know everything is propaganda, but, holy shit?!

Why does corn need commercials?! Will people fall for this? HFCS has gotten a lot of attention recently. Will people actually watch this commercial, sigh in relief, and head back to their meals reassured by their televisions? The Corn Refiners Association apparently thinks so, and they’ve bet tens of millions of dollars on that hope.

I’m not the only one who finds this all pretty incredible. YouTube is full of parodies and rebuttal videos. Here’s one:

I’m not linking to The Corn Refiners Association’s website. They claim to have studies showing that HFCS is fine. However, this CBS report says those reports are suspect:

“Of the six studies CBS News looked at on the association’s Web site that “Confirm High Fructose Corn Syrup [is] No Different From Sugar,” three were sponsored by groups that stand to profit from research that promotes HFCS. Two were never published so their funding sources are unclear. And one was sponsored by a Dutch foundation that represents the interests of the sugar industry.”

Part of their claim is that HFCS is no worse than any other kind of sugar. That may be true. I haven’t dug deep enough to be able to dissect that claim. But the scary thing is how hard it is to avoid. HFCS hides in ketchup, crackers, 100% whole wheat bread, pickles, salad dressing, Nutrigrain bars, cough syrup, applesauce…

So even if HFCS weren’t any worse than other kinds of sugar, other kinds of sugar aren’t finding their way into simply everything. Corn is.

If you’re interested in your food, where it comes from, how it ends up on your table, and the convoluted political meanderings that get it there, I recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here’s one little excerpt:

So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question “What should I eat?” could no longer be answered without first addressing two other even more straightforward questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” Not very long ago an eater didn’t need a journalist to answer these questions. The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain.

Pollan has a casual, conversational writing style that makes the topic very accessible, while he also undoubtedly pulls no punches. My conclusion from his section on industrial food is that we’re eating corn and using an awful lot of petroleum to do it. It’s interesting how quickly the question of what we’re eating turns into a sharp, scary look at politics. You can also Google around and find some good essays online by Pollan. If his words strike you, get the book. Reading the entire thing is worth it.

Here’s are some excerpts from Omnivore’s Dilemma about a fast food meal that show just how prevalent corn can be.

From page 113:

“The ingredients in the [McDonald’s] flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose, lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leaches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil, and citric acid as a preservative.”

And pages 115-117:

“It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds of corn for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another 1 pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.

From here the calculations become trickier because, according to the ingredients listed in the flyer, corn is everywhere in our meal, but in unspecified amounts. There’s more corn sweetener in my cheeseburger, of all places: the bun and the ketchup both contain HFCS. It’s in the salad dressing, too, and the sauces for the nuggets, not to mention Isaac’s dessert. (Of the sixty items listed on the handout, forty-five contain HFCS.) Then there are all the other corn ingredients in the nugget: the binders and emulsifiers and fillers. In addition to corn sweeteners, Isaac’s shake contains corn syrup solids, mono- and di-glycerides, and milk from corn-fed animals.

Judith’s Cobb salad is also stuffed with corn, even though there’s not a kernel in it: Paul Newman makes his dressing with HFCS, corn syrup, corn starch, dextrin, caramel color, and xanthan gum; the salad itself contains cheese and eggs from corn-fed animals. The salad’s grilled chicken breast is injected with a “flavor solution” that contains maltodextrin, dextrose, and monosodium glutamate.

Sure, there are a lot of leafy greens in Judith’s salad, but the overwhelming majority of calories in it (and there are 500 of them, when you count the dressing) ultimately comes from corn. And the French fries? You would think those are mostly potatoes. Yet since half of the 540 calories in a large order of fries come from the oil they’re fried in, the ultimate source of these calories is not a potato farm but a field of corn or soybeans.

The calculation finally defeated me, but I took it far enough to estimate that, if you include the corn in the gas tank (a whole bushel right there, to make two and half gallons of ethanol), the amount of corn that went into producing our movable fast-food feast would easily have overflowed the car’s trunk, spilling a trail of golden kernels on the blacktop behind us.

Some time later I found another way to calculate just how much corn we had eaten that day. I asked Todd Lawson, a biologist at Berkeley, to run a McDonald’s meal though his mass spectrometer and calculate how much of the carbon in it originally came from a corn plant. … In order of diminishing corniness, this how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent).”

So remind me again why corn needs commercials? I also saw a commercial this week for “Clementines from Spain.” I’m hoping this means that people are finally waking up to the petroleum on their plates and the processing in their food. But, I’m worried that the commercials will work, since the people who design and pay for them are generally very good at what they do.

And these are just obvious examples. Everything you see is trying to sell you on something. Try to know what it is.

Corn and Mercury

It’s been less than a month since I noticed that corn has commercials. I know, I was a little behind the times. I’m pretty sure my life benefits from the general lack of TV, though, so a little cultural lag is okay with me. I’m already a tin-foil-hat type anyway, so the less I see of mass media, the better. Otherwise, things like this happen: In early January, I notice that one of corn’s little zombie children has its own commercials. Now, not even a whole month later, we all learn that there’s mercury in the HFCS. Even more alarming, the FDA knew it in 2005, but we’re just hearing about it now. Read about this here or here.


So there’s mercury in 30-50% of the HFCS, and there’s HFCS in 30% of the foods on the shelf in the grocery store. Somehow, this doesn’t surprising to me, including the bit about the FDA knowing about it. It should alarm me to discover that this doesn’t surprise me, but somehow it doesn’t do that, either.

I wonder how the anti-vaccine crowd is reacting to this news? If you think the mercury in vaccines is scary, take a look at the ingredients list on your kid’s lunch items!

Like always, these little news items leave a feeling of “what to do”? Green Georgia says it’s a simple two-part problem. Figure out what you value, and then what to do about it flows from there. She asks:

“…what do you value? What’s worth giving up, if the thing at stake is your life?”

Many people complain that organic or local food is “more expensive”. This, however, presumes that the sticker price at the store is the complete picture of cost. Say an industrial item at the store is .99, the (probably industrial) organic version is 2.99 and the thing from your local farmer is 5.99. For a lot of people, that equation looks pretty simple, and they get the 99 cent item. What if the label were a bit longer, though? What if you recognized, each time you put an item in your basket that the equation went something more like this:

Only $0.99! (And higher blood pressure, closer to obesity, on your way to diabetes, maybe some cancer, fewer nutrients, dependence on fossil fuels, decimated monoculture landscapes, big-big government management through subsidies, and a bunch of animal abuse thrown in, too!)

Hmm. Looks a little different. Americans spend about 10% of their income on food. Food is the very stuff of life. Food, water, air, shelter. By buying the cheap food, we’re adding to the decline of our water and air, and buying food that meets the bare minimum of sustenance. What do you value? Is the dollar amount the right way to figure out what something costs you? Maybe the foods we eat should be worth more than 10% of our money, especially when it means so much more than just food. Is the health of the planet, the welfare of animals, the health of our bodies, the lack of petroleum on our plates, AND the food we eat worth more than 10% of our income?

If any of these topics interest you, I can’t say strongly enough that you should read Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is THE book to read if you’re interested in what you’re eating, where it comes from, how it gets to you, and all the ethical, moral, and political gymnatics along the way. You can find articles of his online, too, such as What’s Eating America. If you like his words, buy the book. I don’t think this mercury problem is an isolated, unusual event amongst the products we’ve been convinced to call food. Some hard thinking about the food we eat is long overdue.