Guest blogger today: a former student (got to love this sort of thing), banker, writer, and really snappy dresser, who’s dealt with some serious food issues, so takes these things seriously in both an intellectual sense and an emotional sense. Here’s her take on everybody’s fave food additive:
Recently, a small study of twenty individuals was done by scientists at Yale University. Using fMRI scans, the scientists studied the effect of fructose vs. glucose on the human brain. They found that when humans consume fructose, the blood doesn’t flow to the brain – and to certain centers in the brain that help us know when we are full – the same way as it does when an ordinary person consumes glucose.
For some time now, some members of the scientific community have been hypothesizing that there may be a link between fructose consumption and the rise in obesity in America. After all, obesity rates began to rise about thirty years ago. Around this same time high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS for short, began its introduction into the American diet as an additive to common foods. Essentially, HFCS became a commodity.
I’d like to pause for a moment and point out that fructose is not the same as HFCS. Generally, HFCS contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose.* Fructose isn’t just found in HFCS; it’s also known as ‘the fruit sugar,’ and is naturally contained in fruit. However, when you eat an apple (or any other fruit), it’s not like chugging straight HFCS. Apples and other fruits contain fructose, but they are also high in fiber. Numerous studies have confirmed that consumption of fiber with fructose (i.e., eating a whole fruit as opposed to drinking fruit juice) leads to increased feelings of fullness, and longer periods of time before test subjects feel hungry again. HFCS is fructose, but divorced from fiber.
Most ordinary food producers aren’t lacing their products with plain old fructose. On the other hand, they do like to add HFCS to, well…everything. What follows is a partial list:
– Fast food (as a preservative)
– Bread products
– Baked beans
– Tomato Soup
Yes, you heard that right, folks. As a baker I can kind of understand why HFCS might be added to bread products: after all, yeast needs to feed on sugar in order to work its magic and make bread rise. While I think that using HFCS to do this is a bit of stretch, (and while manufacturers probably add HFCS to sweeten the product, not feed the yeast) I can pretend there’s some sort of logic there. However – yogurt? Ketchup? Tomato soup?
Food producers like to add HFCS to food because it is cheap. As a result of government corn subsidies our nation’s farms have produced a surplus, an incredible surplus, of corn. This is a complicated subject – hell, food and weight are both extremely complicated subjects – and is better covered by Michael Pollan in his 2005 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you are curious about this situation I suggest you read there; for the moment, though, please bear with me.
Corn is cheap. HFCS is made out of corn. It tastes sweeter than sugar, so less can be used in place of sugar in food products, and currently is about half the price. And food manufacturers like to add it to everything. Now, through more studies than simply the one I mention above, scientists are finding that when people consume fructose, it is likely that they are unable to accurately determine when they are full – when their appetites are sated. In other words, we have found a sugar that whets our appetite without appeasing it.
This is perfect for the food industry, if you think about it. After all, food manufacturers need to make money, and they make money by selling food. Typically, there’s only so much food that anyone can sell at one point, because there are only so many people in the United States and generally, they have a limited, or at least constant, appetite. But imagine what happens when you diminish their ability to know when they are full? Why, I bet those consumers start buying more food.
This is not so good for us humans. Again, I stress that weight and food are both extremely complex, convoluted subjects, and links between HFCS (or even fructose, for that matter), obesity, and/or impaired ability to determine one’s satiety are still under investigation. This subject has been debated with members of the scientific community taking both sides: at best, I think we can agree that more research needs to be done.
There’s a lot more that can be said about HFCS, like the Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to rebrand it as “corn sugar” (to sound more ‘natural’) or the study funded by PepsiCo and (again) the Corn Refiners Association that says there’s a lack of evidence linking HFCS and obesity. (Hmm, wonder why…) Ultimately, in light of this most recent study, which appears to show that fructose is processed differently by the brain, I think all of this gives us something to think about.
* According to the HFCS industry, there are two common formulations of HFCS; one contains 55% fructose, one contains 42%. The 55% version is used to sweeten food items such as sodas. It’s worth mentioning that a 2011 study of foods containing HFCS found that several major product brands appear to be processed with HFCS that has as high as 65% fructose.
Fructose/fiber/satiety study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6259919
Princeton Study on HFCS and weight gain/obesity: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/
HFCS content testing paper (mentioned in footnote):http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20948525
Also recommended: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and/or Food Rules
List of HFCS-free food: www.stophfcs.com/list.html