High fructose corn syrup: Saving pennies, packing on the pounds

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Everyone agrees on two things: Americans enjoy relatively cheap food prices, and they also have a serious problem with weight. Thank high fructose corn syrup for both of these conditions.

On the one hand, the recent discovery that there are trace amounts of mercury in many brands of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) comes as something of a surprise. After all, most people save their dietary consumption of mercury for the occasional swordfish or tuna splurge; the fact that it is finding its way into our bodies through sodas and snacks seems a little unfair. On the other hand, given the health problems associated with HFCS, the addition of mercury is just icing on the cake.

I have to admit that I'm not a fan of HFCS. A few days ago, in fact, I wrote a post in which I criticized the stuff. Having done battle with the HFCS folk before, I wasn't surprised to find a nice long missive from an industry representative tacked into the comment section. The representative pointed to various studies claiming that HFCS is no more damaging than honey or table sugar. Corn growers have bolstered this with a $30 million ad campaign and a much-hyped FDA ruling that allows food manufacturers to use the term "natural" when advertising HFCS.

I can only imagine the bribes, threats, and arm-twisting that went into producing the FDA's ruling; while there are plenty of reasons to dispute the corn-industry's numerous studies touting the all-natural status of HFCS, my personal experience with the stuff has been particularly compelling.

Long story short, when I removed it from my diet, I felt my energy increase and watched my weight drop. Nowadays, on those rare occasions that I mistakenly consume HFCS, I tend to get cranky, irritable, and sleepy. In fact, when I experience those symptoms, I often discover that I inadvertently ate some sweetened relish, jelly, or other dish that was HFCS-laden.

Part of the reason for these symptoms might be the fact that I use sweeteners sparingly; by comparison, companies that include HFCS tend to liberally douse their foods with the stuff. On the other hand, this ignores HFCS's documented tendency to trick the body into feeling hungry when it should feel full. In other words, when I eat a lot of sugar, my body tells me to stop; when I eat HFCS, my body tells me that I'm still hungry. If I follow my body's dictates, chances are that I will eat until I am bloated.

I am not alone in this. In fact, HFCS's tendency to encourage gluttony is pretty well documented. This, by the way, is why people of a certain age can remember only being able to drink one or two cokes at a time when they were kids, but can now drink the sodas endlessly. In the switch from Old Coke to New Coke to Coke Classic, the Coca Cola company also switched from sugar to HFCS. This sneaky inclusion is hardly uncommon: according to some reports, the average American inadvertently eats 12 teaspoons of the stuff per day.

It's not hard to see why manufacturers rely on HFCS. It's cheap, easy to transport, long-lasting, and subsidized by the government. People who eat it tend to crave it, which encourages greater consumption, greater sales, and greater profits. On the other hand, it also encourages greater gluttony, greater obesity, and may be linked to greater numbers of diabetics.

Personally, I'd argue that this is one place where what's good for American business may not be what's good for me. While I'm waiting for the government to start listening to its scientists about the dangers of HFCS, I'll spend my money on slightly pricer, much healthier alternatives. After all, saving a few pennies at the supermarket is a lot less impressive when it leads to spending dollars at the doctor's office!

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