The other day I was waiting to get my hair cut and picked up a Martha Stewart magazine, where I came across an ad for SweetSurprise.com. It was all about promoting high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. At the bottom of the ad I saw the sponsor: The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), a national trade association representing the corn refining (wet milling) industry of the United States. So I looked up Sweet Surprise when I got home.
I think I know what the CRA is up to and this is where my blog posting gets murky. You see, I’m not much of a politician. In fact, I hate politics. But I found it interesting that there was an ad defending HFCS because that must mean the messages of Michael Pollan and Food, Inc. are being heard in Washington, D.C.
Just read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and it’s so clear that the industrialization of food is linked directly to the surplus of corn, created in the 1970s by politicians. That was the decade when food prices were high. In stepped Earl Butz, who revolutionized American agriculture, shifting its foundation to corn.
According to Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Butz arranged a sale of American corn to Russia, which had a series of disastrous harvests. This, in turn, boosted the price of corn, which encouraged American farmers that farming was still a viable livelihood. The spike in farm income then secured Nixon’s reelection by the farm vote. But the next year (1973) inflation for food hit an all-time high. As Pollan says, “….housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets. Farmers were killing chicks because they couldn’t afford to buy feed, and the price of beef was slipping beyond the reach of the middle-class consumers.” People were on the verge of a revolt so Nixon sent Butz to the task of reengineering the American food system. Butz pushed farmers to “get big or get out” and set up loans for farmers and government grain purchases. Basically, the U.S. government was subsidizing every bushel of corn that American farmers could grow.
Which is why HFCS ended up in over 10,000 items in the grocery store. Here is a sample from Michael Pollan’s list in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: coffee whitener, Cheez Whiz, frozen yogurt, TV dinners, canned fruit, ketchup, candies, snacks, soups, cake mixes, frosting, gravy, frozen waffles, syrups, hot sauces, mayonnaise, mustard, hot dogs, bologna, margarine, shortening, salad dressing, relish, even vitamins. If you’re allergic to corn, shopping for processed food in a grocery store is a nightmare. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Corn is in these food items because our country has so much corn, we don’t know what to do with it all.
So what is the CRA trying to say on their Sweet Surpise website? In their 2008 campaign, “Changing the Conversation about High Fructose Corn Syrup,” they’re saying there’s nothing wrong with HFCS, when compared to other sweeteners. Sure, I’ll buy that. But what is it doing in all those other foods? Their answer is that it provides other benefits besides sweetening, such as reducing acidity of cooked tomatoes, helping to brown baked goods, and enhancing fruit and spice flavors in yogurts and marinades. Then why do the same foods without HFCS taste perfectly fine? It’s just a way to beef up the argument for putting HFCS in everything.
The insidious existence of HFCS in something like mustard or soup is the issue at hand. THAT is why our country is getting obese. THAT is why eating processed food is an addiction in this country. With HFCS in everything most Americans eat, it’s no wonder something as innocent as ketchup can have the same effect on people as something as obviously sweet as a doughnut.
For me, avoiding HFCS–and feed corn in general–isn’t just about eating fewer calories; it’s about taking a stand against the people who are creating engineered foods that keep people addicted and unhealthy.