June 17th, 2006


When I get the chance to read again...

I intend to pick up "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Micael Pollan. He was on Stephen Colbert's show recently, and he made the assertion that the US was subsidizing the production of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to our own detriment. He also drew the comparison that as the Irish were the people of the potato, we are becoming the people of corn.

Some thoughts:

  • subsidy - Ok, so we don't subsidize HFCS per se. The subsidies go for growing corn, which gets made into all sorts of things, like livestock feed and tortilla chips. Also, popcorn. If you read "Fast Food Nation", you might be a little concerned about how livestock are fed, and maybe feeding corn to animals isn't a good idea.
    I'm sure the topic of farm subsidies is a detailed and difficult one to wrap one's head around, but one of Pollan's points in his appearance on the show was that the government's investing in unhealthful food choices. One figure I turned up claims that we spend less than 2% of our farm subsidy budget on fruits and vegetables.

  • fructose vs glucose - I'd be interested to be educated by some friends who pay attention to their blood sugar, but my understanding is that our body metabolizes glucose in a substantially different way than fructose. Glucose is more closely related to satiety than fructose (blame the glucokinase in the hypothalamus). Glucose needs insulin to be metabolized by the body, whereas fructose is absorbed directly - but only in the presence of glucose.
    When the body absorbs fructose, it can do a number of different things with it, including turning it into glucose or triglycerides (fat). The body makes that decision based on all sorts of factors, including diet and exercise.

  • HFCS vs other sweeteners - there's all sorts of sweeteners out there, including corn syrup, table sugar, and honey. Table sugar's an easy comparison to make, since it's familiar, and it happens to be easy to talk specificially about. Table sugar - sucrose - is exactly one unit each of fructose and glucose, so a fructose content of 50%. HFCS can range from 42% fructose content up to 90%, but 55% is widely used, as at that ratio, it behaves similarly to sucrose.
    Honey's got all sorts of stuff in it - the bees don't produce nearly as simple a product as our stainless-steel factories. But, from what I can tell, it looks like honey's in the 55% fructose and 45% glucose range, too.

  • so fructose is evil? - of course not. It's not even poison. My first inclination was to think that fructose=bad, glucose=good, and that if I eliminated all fructose from my diet, I'd be trim and smart and healthy. Then I realized that HFCS isn't really higher in fructose than sucrose is - the name means that HFCS is higher in fructose than normal corn syrup, which is almost pure glucose.
    HFCS has been replacing sugar in our diets for the past 25 years or so, at a ratio of about 1:1, meaning that pretty much each pound of HFCS consumed today means one fewer pound of sucrose consumed. The HFCS lobby maintains that the US consumption of sweeteners is pretty much constant over the past 40 years, and this seems to agree with the substitution of HFCS for sucrose.

  • so fructose is just fine? - er, I wouldn't say that. It's in an awful lot of stuff that you might not expect. Mmmm-mmm good. I could really go for some pancakes with sweet, sweet cough syrup on them.

  • upshot - after all this googling and crawling around wikipedia (and not yet having read Pollan's book), I've considered all sorts of drastic changes in my diet - no more corn! - no more fructose, all glucose! - no more glucose, all fructose! - no more caloric drinks! - and I think those are all reactionary and crazy now. It hardly matters, I wouldn't have kept up with any of the changes for long.
    However, I do think that I'm going to turn a suspicious eye towards packaged foods for a while.