I just joined Twitter (for those of you who don’t know, it’s like blogging, but shorter. Think blogging from a cell phone in text messages, not that I do it that way). At around the same time as I joined, the little neck of the woods I fit into was a-flutter with tweets about a sweet. The news had just hit that mercury could be found in High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS, known on ingredient labels primarily as Glucose-Fructose here in Canada), and that detectable levels had been found in major brand-name products.
My first reaction was to not be overly concerned. We don’t consume a lot of that here right? But even then, I had a look at the published data. The high offender, Quaker’s Oatmeal-to-go bars, had 350 parts per trillion (ppt). Cameron and I regularly enjoy fish, the highest of which is in the range of .35 parts per million (ppm) (canned tuna and halibut). That’s still considered okay for limited consumption here, even for kids. Most of our fish is salmon though which is around 0.02 ppm. Wait, you ask? Wasn’t she writing about HFCS? What’s all this about fish? Okay, so it’s perfectly fine according to health Canada, known for being at least more cautious about many things like Bisphenol-A than the USA, for someone to consume say 100g a week of canned tuna. Look at the values. Ppm vs ppt. Canned tuna has roughly 1000 times the mercury of the oatmeal bars. Which we don’t buy, by the way.
Seriously folks, you’re more likely to have health complications due to the stress of worrying about mercury in HFCS than you are to have them from that mercury.
Now wait … the mercury content isn’t the only part of HFCS that has people tweeting on twitter. Apparently it’s worse for you than table sugar, causes hormonal problems, causes obesity, signals your liver to store fat, raises your cholesterol levels. In short, the obesity epidemic is being blamed on HFCS and it’s ubiquity in North American foods. Me being me, I HAD to look this up, using pubmed to peruse recent scientific publications. I’ll confess, I have not done a thorough literature search nor have I intensely investigated the stats in the published literature. I’m not looking to get a review article published, I just want a general feel.
Whether or not HFCS is truly bad for you is really still up in the air. There has been a lot of recent publication activity, and the gist that I’m getting is that earlier claims of hormonal disruptions and liver changes appears to not be substantiated. In clear language, they think that it isn’t true. Now it could be that the corn PR people (who have been campaigning in advertisements trying to spread the word that HFCS is healthy in moderation) financially backed these recent studies, which would cast them in a suspicious light – I didn’t look that up. There was some evidence that HFCS could raise carbonyl levels, something characteristic of Type II diabetes. But all in all, it seems that it’s just another refined, processed sugar.
Alright, fine. HFCS doesn’t look to really be much worse for you than table sugar. Which the experts have been telling us for decades is bad for our health. It promotes obesity and all the health issues that go along with it. Sound familiar? So it’s not surprising that there’s a link between the increase in HFCS and those health issues. But why the apparent link between the onset of the obesity epidemic and the inclusion of HFCS in foods?
Oh, for heaven’s sakes, it’s sugar. And it’s in EVERYTHING. In alarming quantities. It’s cheaper than dextrose (glucose) or table sugar since it’s made from good old corn, so suddenly it was affordable to make processed foods appeal even more to our taste buds by adding sugar. Not so much that we taste it as sweet, just enough to play games with our brains.
For some reason, I was under the impression that here in Canada much of our food has lower levels of HFCS/Glucose-Fructose than in the USA. This may be true, as there are large differences in many ingredients, even within the same brand names, across the border. So I thought I’d have a look when we went grocery shopping today. Here’s what I found:
As always, we headed to the back first, to get milk. Duh, no sugar of any type added in there. Ground bison, same. Then for what will go with that meat – I’m going to make pasta sauce. I wasn’t surprised, no sugar of any type added to tomato paste; it’s just tomatoes. But then I got a shock as I started going through the different brands of tomato sauce. Not a single one was lacking HFCS. Now, I didn’t go to the organics section, so it could be that there are HFCS-free varieties there, but I just decided to use canned whole plum tomatoes (buy them whole, and you’ll get better quality ones). No sugars added. Frozen ‘tuscan’ lasagna … ohmylord, I forgot to check this until I got home, and it’s loaded with sugars. Mario’s Dutch Chocolate Gelato has sugar in it, go figure, so I wasn’t distressed by this. Orangina I’m addicted to, I’m sad to say, and it’s mostly HFCS. I took a moment to check out juices – some had sugars of varying types added, some didn’t. Then another surprise, though I had heard about this through twitter I was sure this would be a Canadian exception. Campbell’s Tomato Soup has HFCS. Vegetarian Vegetable has sugar in it, and I bought it anyway (since then I’ve rethought this, as it has more sugar in it than it has green beans, which means over a tablespoon per serving). I just about danced for joy when I read V-8’s ingredients. The rest of the groceries were fruits (oranges, bananas, strawberries which I’m embarrassed to admit since they’re certainly nowhere near local) and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, peppers, onion, potatoes).
I find the omnipresence of needless sugars in our diets several orders of magnitude more alarming, and expect that this has far more impact on the health of the population, than the mercury content of HFCS.
WHY THE HECK DO SOUP AND TOMATO SAUCE HAVE SUGAR IN THEM?
I make soup frequently. I never ever add sugar (or salt for that matter). It tastes yummy.
Take-home lesson here? It’s not news. The more highly processed a food is, the more likely it is to be bad for you, be it from the fat content or the sugar content. It is also worthwhile to read labels before you purchase, and think about what those ingredient lists really mean.