18 September 2008

More "Sweet" Surprises

Yesterday I posted on the health concerns of high fructose corn syrup (hfcs). One of the things that drives me mad about the Sweet Surprise commercials is how stumped the actors are when they say, “oh, haven’t you heard about high fructose corn syrup?” and the other person says, “like what?” They can’t seem to think of a single thing to say.

The Sweet Surprise website itself points to one of the very real issues with high fructose corn syrup, the one that has no immediate effect on your health- unless you happen to be a fan of clean water (we’ll get to this in a minute). On their FAQ page, they answer the question, “Why did food manufacturers switch to hfcs?” with this tidbit: “While price may have been a factor in food manufacturers' choice in sweeteners more than 20 years ago, U.S. food manufacturers' continued use of high fructose corn syrup is based on the benefits it provides rather than its price relative to sugar.”

This is an intriguing concept. Until the jump in corn prices this summer thanks to biofuels, corn typically cost more to grow than to buy. It’s readily available. It can be grown in the US, in massive quantities. And the US government puts millions of dollars of subsidies into corn to keep the price level. This keeps the producers of hfcs in constant supply of very, very cheap raw materials for their products. There are a very small number of very large companies who corner this market- and it doesn’t take much poking around to realize they have the corner not only on hfcs, but on almost all of those mysterious ingredients you find in your processed foods (and biofuels! Another surprise): lecithin, maltodextrin, citric and lactic acid, emulsifier, xanthan gum, phytosterols, and all the rest. Food no longer comes direct from a farm, it is assembled and manufactured from a diverse array of mostly corn derived ingredients in a laboratory.

So what about corn? Corn, from which corn syrup is obviously derived, is a finicky plant. Most of the corn crops (about 70%, I believe) are fed to livestock, most of the rest go to make sweeteners and preservatives for your crackers. Either way, we grow a ton of the stuff. And it’s not exactly the most environmentally friendly plant. You see, corn doesn’t take up nitrogen very well (which all plants need to survive), so it’s usually rotated with a nitrogen fixing plant (alfalfa, soybeans). Most people have heard how the Native Americans grew corn with squash and peas (peas are nitrogen fixers). However, we grow corn in monocrops (all by their lonesome), so while it’s in the ground, it needs major amounts of nitrogen input to produce lots and lots of corn. Since the corn isn’t absorbing most of this, it runs off… into the water. Here in Maryland, we typically use a lot of chicken manure for nitrogen input, as it’s readily available (what with Perdue being right down the Shore). And when it rains… into the Bay. Remember that whole Pfiesteria scare, where they kept talking about chicken manure in the water? That would be from corn fertilizer. High nitrogen loads are also responsible for creating the major algae blooms that kill off crabs, oysters, and fish, and create dead zones in the Bay. Agriculture isn’t the only source (sewage treatment is right up there), but it does account for a large percentage.

Now don’t go jumping all over farmers for letting nitrogen into the water. Remember, they wouldn’t be growing corn at all if there wasn’t a market for it, and there’s a market for it because people eat a lot of chicken and eat a lot of products with corn derived ingredients. It wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t growing so MUCH of it, and all together, without any crop diversity. To keep corn inexpensive enough to keep food prices down, we have to grow absurd amounts of it, and grow it with enormous fertilizer inputs. So next time you see one of those commercials, or someone asks you what’s wrong with high fructose corn syrup, let them know. It’s a long list. And remember: pay attention to who pays for what ads.

For more information:
Archer Daniels, one of the big corn processing companies
Cargill, the biggest corn processor of them all
And our favorite, Sweet Surprise.com

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