High Fructose Corn Syrup challenge

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What do Campbell’s Vegetable Soup, A-1 Steak Sauce, Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Ice Cream, Mott’s Applesauce, Yoplait Yogurt, Nabisco Wheat Thins, Robitussin Cough Syrup, Heinz Ketchup (and Hunt’s Catchup), PowerBar, Thomas English Muffins, Starbucks Frappuccino, Coca-Cola (and Pepsi-Cola), Stove Top Stuffing, KFC Potato Salad, McDonalds Big Mac (bun), and Subway’s Deli Style Roll, have in common?

Every one of these food products, among the hundreds of others not included in this list, contains a controversial common ingredient: High-fructose corn syrup. As a result of a double-dog-dare by the New U staff, any food or product containing HFCS was off-limits to me for an entire week. Never one to back down from a challenge, I took the bait, but soon realized I might have made a mistake.

To get a better idea of what I was up against, I needed to arm myself with knowledge of what exactly I could and could not have, and, what the big deal was anyway. While it’s absurd to me that Wheat Thins and Subway deli rolls are being artificially sweetened, my initial thought was “So what? Sugar is sugar, right?”

Wrong.

Goodbye morning-ritual specialty coffee, goodbye Monster energy drink, and goodbye evening Coke and Rum. Clearly, the challenge was a bit more difficult than I had imagined.

According to Dr. Katherine Zeratsky of the Mayo Clinic, “High-fructose corn syrup is made by changing the glucose in cornstarch to fructose — another form of sugar. The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose.”

At a basic level, refined (processed) sugars are used commercially to sweeten foods and preservatives (unrefined sugars, or natural sugars, are those that are found in fruits, vegetables, and grains). While some sugars are clearly used to fuel our bodies, oftentimes sugar is stored in our bodies for later use. The trouble, for many Americans, is that there is less use and more storage. Dr. Zeratsky stresses that all sugar intake should be moderated more closely, especially for those who are less active.

“Many beverages and other processed foods made with high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners are high in calories and low in nutritional value. Regularly including these products in your diet has the potential to promote obesity — which, in turn, promotes conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease,” Zeratsky said.

Due to tariffs on imported sugar and large government subsidies for American corn farmers (over $40 billion since the early 1990s), HFCS has become the cheapest and most popular sugar substitute in America. Because HFCS has a longer shelf life, and is easier to blend and transport than table sugar, it is virtually unavoidable in most major supermarkets, restaurants, and fast food chains — and that is exactly what makes it so controversial. While fresh market chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are shunning major brands and products that use HFCS, anti-boycott efforts by the Corn Refiners Association have sought to disprove this perception by promoting HFCS as a “natural” and “nutritional equivalent” to honey and table sugar.

Perhaps the lab results are mixed, but I’m not convinced by the CRA’s propaganda. I’m reminded of the classic tobacco ad, “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” And though the CRA isn’t making an appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam), I take issue in how the abundance of artificially sweetened foods has completely saturated American food products (both Japan and the EU have a manufacturing quota on the use of HFCS). Why in the world is HFCS being used in Vegetable Soup and Wheat Thins? English Muffins and hamburger buns, and Subway deli rolls, too? (Shame on you, Jared!) Is that really necessary?

During spring break, I recommitted myself to working out — not just because pool weather is approaching and I want to bring back the chiseled abs, but also because I wanted to live a healthier, more active lifestyle. I love food as much as the next guy, but functionally, this challenge came at a time when I really needed to be more aware of my diet. If food is fuel for my body, do I really need all the crap I had been eating? Does that food do anything other than satisfy a mouth-watering craving?

In nearly every instance, the answer was no, and no. Although old habits are hard to break, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are actually closer to my home than Albertsons and Vons. For the entire week, I drank fresh-ground, organic coffee — black — and brown-bagged a fresh-cut turkey (no artificially sweetened glaze for flavoring) wheat wrap and assorted HFCS-free snacks for lunch. I didn’t eat out for dinner; instead, I ate fresh, lean meats, and a slew of the finest local and organically grown produce. And the truth is that it was good. But I did have one cheat — BevMo carries Mexican Coca-Cola, which is made with cane sugar, which I so totally drank (with rum). In moderation, of course.

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