In the wake of the tragic world that high fructose corn syrup has built, many Americans are keen on avoiding the GMO corn sludge that's been connected with a number of health issues including our nation's bulging obesity epidemic and diseases including type 2 diabetes. So, many Americans are returning to good ol' white sugar as a "healthy" sweetener. But is this a good a thing?
In 1975, just shy of twenty years after high fructose corn syrup was invented, the average American consumed only four pounds of HFCS per year versus 70 pounds of sugar. Fast-forward 30-some years, and the consumption rates are nearly matched: 45 pounds of sugar and 39 pounds of HFCS.
While we've known for decades that too much sugar is not even close to a good thing for our health—obesity and diabetes have only skyrocketed since our consumption of corn syrup began to rise in the early 1980s—the reason may be in the glucose/fructose factor. Fructose levels are 5 percent higher in corn sugar than in cane sugar.
Efforts by health advocates including Michele Obama have injected a good deal of awareness about the dangers of HFCS into mainstream consciousness. Schools are now serving healthier foods that do not contain HFCS. Soda vending machines are essentially banned on most school campuses. Food and wellness experts like Jamie Oliver, Dr. Oz and Alice Waters are successfully educating Americans on the importance of diets rich in whole, unprocessed foods and increasingly lighter in snacks, candy or ice cream. The number of farmers markets in the U.S. has gone from under 2,000 in 1996 to nearly 8,000 today.
Responding to the surge in HFCS awareness, brands like Snapple and Pepsi launched products sweetened instead with sugar. Restaurants import Coca-Cola from Mexico where it's still sugar-sweetened. Cereals, snack bars and myriad other sugar-sweetened foods are now marketed as "natural" alternatives to HFCS-sweetened products. The World Health Organization defines genetic modification by practice, as unnatural. Most of the corn syrup in the U.S. comes from GMO corn, and while it's difficult to parse out the causes of the increasing number of digestive and metabolic illnesses plaguing our nation—two factors intersect in many of those cases: diets high in GMOs and diets high in (also GMO) corn syrup.
But, according to an article by Kim Severson in the New York Times, "many nutrition and obesity experts say sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are equally bad in excess." Add to that the booming beet sugar industry, which is now 95 percent genetically modified, mainly with Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets, recently deregulated by the USDA. So, consumers looking to replace GMO HFCS with "sugar" may be trading up for another genetically modified product. (Products that contain sugar originating from the sugarcane plant will typically specify "cane sugar" on the label versus GMO beet sugar typically labeled as "sugar".)
Even the AMA says there is no difference between sugar and corn syrup when it comes to obesity, according to Severson, "To researchers and nutritionists who study obesity and the effects of sugar on the body, the resurrection of sugar is maddening."
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Image: Steve Snodgrass