Monday, August 27, 2012

Food Rules: Why 'Super Sugar' Is Not That Super

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If you went to elementary school in Georgia, there's a good chance you took a field trip to the Coca-Cola Museum. Atlanta is the birthplace of Coca-Cola and boy, are we proud of it! I went more than a handful of times. It was my FAVORITE trip of the year. The teachers let us run rampant through the museum and at the end (past all the boring history stuff), you entered a room where different flavors of Coke from all over the world would shoot out of the wall and land perfectly in the center of your waiting cup. Educational, fun and delicious. Talk about a lot of kids hopped up on sugar and caffeine...

Sadly, the only way our teachers could have topped this field trip would have been stopping by the gas station to grab snacks for the bus ride home.

Which brings me to this week's tip from Michael Pollan's book Food Rules...


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Gas stations have basically become one large stop and shop for processed corn products. Ethanol for your car and high fructose corn syrup for you. You'd think a gas station would profit mostly from gas sales alone, but in America, food (and cigarette) sales have taken the lead when it comes to profit margins. Gas station snacks are cheap and easy, a quick way to satisfy those salt or sugar cravings. But what exactly are you putting into your body when you shop at the gas station (or the inside aisles of the supermarket)?

I have four words for you: High Fructose Corn Syrup (or HFCS, for short).

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You've heard a lot about it, I'm sure. Studies say it's bad for you. Commercials say it's no worse than regular cane sugar. Big companies say that their products are natural, yet labels still list HFCS on the ingredient label. All this chatter inevitably leads to lots of confusion regarding this sweetener so I'd like to take a stab at explaining it so that you understand what you are feeding your body.

Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made up of two molecules (fructose and glucose) which are bound together in equal amounts (50% fructose, 50% glucose). Your digestive system has to work to break the bond apart before they are absorbed into your system. HFCS, on the other hand, is extracted from a corn stalk through a chemical process and is composed of 55% fructose and 45% glucose in an unbound form. That means your body doesn't have to work to break it apart before absorption. The fructose goes straight for your liver and triggers the production of fats, while the glucose causes major insulin spikes. 

Alright, alright... I'll stop with the science lesson and get down to business. What does this mean for you?

1) It's no surprise that HFCS consumption can lead to weight gain and obesity. Since HFCS was introduced into the mass market in the early 80's, obesity rates have increased dramatically. Of course, there are many factors fueling this, but foods containing HFCS are cheap, allowing the average consumer to indulge in them more often. HFCS was incorporated into our foods in the first place BECAUSE it's cheap. The government subsidizes the corn industry, making it more profitable for companies to use HFCS instead of sugar. They can then super-size their products, which allows consumers to get more for their money. Even I have noticed the increase in soft drink sizes offered, especially at the movie theater where a small soda looks like an extra-large did years ago.

2) Other than obesity, HFCS can trigger a variety of problems, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and accelerated aging. The unbound fructose molecule in HFCS literally punches small holes in your liver, allowing bacteria and other by-products to escape into your blood stream. Once in the bloodstream, they trigger inflammation, which can cause all kinds of health issues.

3) HFCS contains mercury and other unidentified chemicals which are not regulated by the FDA. These chemicals are a result of the manufacturing process. When 15-20% of the daily caloric intake in America is comprised of foods containing HCFS, one can only assume that we're ingesting a substantial amount of chemicals that should not be entering our bodies. Mercury, for one, can cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage.

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At the end of the day, both sugar and HFCS are bad for you in excess, but HFCS usually signifies that the food you are about to eat is lacking in nutrition (no vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or fiber) and is most likely full of disease-causing compounds like fats and other chemicals. 

In doing my research for this post, I was saddened to find out that some of my favorite snacks contain HFCS... Post Blueberry Morning Cereal, Kellogg's Special K Cereal, Yoplait Yogurts, Nabisco Wheat Thins, Nutrigrain Bars and Arizona Iced Tea, to name a few.

The dangers of HFCS are still up for debate, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that will tell you it's 'good for you'. A quick scan of the food label will allow you to stay clear of HFCS and the health problems that come with it. And if you're struggling with weight loss and temptations when shopping, it might be a little bit easier to avoid those foods if you understand what they're made of and what they do to you.

Moral of the story? Keep it whole, fresh and real. No label-reading required.


  1. So much information in your article that will help people know how bad high fructose corn syrup to our health. Fructose is considered deadlier than sugar and you are right, it is cheaper that's why we can find it in most foods we eat right now. Avoid foods with fructose because not only obesity but there are lots of health problems linked to it like insulin resistance and more.

    1. Catherine, you are so right. Thanks for the helpful link. I've found that knowing these things makes it so much easier for me to say 'no' when i'm having a craving for some processed food. :) Thanks for reading the blog!

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