Curt Ellis is a filmmaker and four-wheel farmer based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-created the documentaries "King Corn" and "The Greening of Southie," and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow. He is the co-founder of Wicked Delicate.

Sweet revenge

The Corn Refiners Association doesn’t tell the whole story

December 11, 2008

Last year around this time, I was recovering from a 30-day diet that forced me to throw out my toothpaste and knocked seven pounds off my frame. I spent that November living out a pledge to avoid corn products, in a stunt for a film I helped make, "King Corn."

On my corn-free plan, the hardest things to avoid turned out to be corn sweeteners. There were funny ones, like Sorbitol (a staple in my Crest, it turns out), but the big problem was that ubiquitous (and, I might add, delicious) goo, high-fructose corn syrup. The stuff was in everything! Spaghetti sauce and bread, Robitussin and fruit juice. Out of the cupboard and into the trash it went.

Cut to this year, when rather than hunting for Karo-free pecan-pie recipes or searching the supermarkets for pasture-fed turkey, I spent my Thanksgiving like many good Americans, eating whatever I wanted, and enjoying this friendly video message from the Corn Refiners Association:

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Now, I must admit, it’s a real sign that high-fructose corn syrup is falling out of favor when some of its major manufacturers have to launch a $25 to $30 million PR onslaught to salvage the product’s good name. The stuff they make tastes great, and it’s already in just about everything we eat, whether we like it or not.

But the “Sweet Surprise” campaign sorely misses the point. The Corn Refiners’ main claim seems to be that if something is safe in moderation, then go ahead and help yourself. Haven’t we heard that before?

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Of course, I imagine high-fructose corn syrup is safe in moderation. If I get up from my desk right now, shotgun a soda, and never drink another one, I don’t expect to keel over from corn poisoning. But if I do what most Americans seem to be doing, and drink that one soda now, another in an hour, and another an hour after that, pretty soon those empty calories will add up. Then I’ll have a problem on my hands . . . or around my middle, more likely.

While the affable fellow in the Corn Refiners ad can’t get his words out, there’s a clear answer to the question that’s harshing on his otherwise-great date: “What’s so bad about high-fructose corn syrup?” As any nutritionist will tell you, if you flood your body with empty calories and don’t work them off, you’re bound to put on weight. Put on too much weight, and you’re bound to see health consequences: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and kidney and liver problems. High-fructose corn syrup is a mighty good way to pack in the empty calories, too: a 20-ounce soda contains 250 of them, and hardly a lick of food value.

It’s old news that obesity is exploding; rates in this country have more than doubled since the 1970s. (Coincidentally, soft-drink consumption has doubled since 1971). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American kids born in the year 2000 is now on a path to develop Type 2 diabetes. With half of all obesity-related medical costs being shouldered by publicly funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid, it seems that preventative medicine will be an important tool in fixing our health-care crisis.

What’s the number-one cause of preventable death in America? Tobacco. Number two? Obesity. We figured out the tobacco part back in the 1960s, got a lot of people to quit smoking, and saved a bundle of money and lives as a result. But it’s worth remembering that King Tobacco put out some nice commercials in their day, too. Their argument? Everything’s fine in moderation.

This post also appears on the blog Civil Eats.

There are 4 comments on this item
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1. by James Berry on Dec 11, 2008 at 2:34 PM PST

Nice clip, Curt! Made me laugh.

2. by FoodRenegade on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:17 PM PST

I saw this first over at CivilEats. It made me laugh. The other parodies on YoutTube are funny, but this one has the best production values by far.

3. by Sheryl on Dec 15, 2008 at 12:39 PM PST

Obesity is not a “cause” of death, and health concerns like diabetes have never been directly linked to obesity. At best, they are linked genetically, so a person who is genetically predisposed to be obese may also be genetically predisposed to have diabetes or heart disease, but there’s never been any proof that these illnesses were caused by obesity.

4. by Cynthia Lair on Dec 26, 2008 at 5:22 PM PST

I don’t think HFCS does metabolize similarly to refined sugar. True they are both refined sweeteners with nothing but empty calories. But one is largely dextrose, the other fructose. The human body was not really set up to utilize large amounts of fructose (how many pieces of fruit would one eat at one sitting?). If only a portion of the calories can be used to create muscle glycogen, where do the rest go? In the case of HFCS they either have to be discarded or stored. For some people the discarding may cause cramping and diarrhea. For others, the fructose just becomes stored fat. Nice.
Honestly, I have been questioning the PhDs in the Nutrition Dept where I work for years to try and figure out how this corn sweetener (Americans eat 83 pounds per person per year - a hefty portion of the diet)metabolizes. I don’t think that we really know the whole story yet. Who would pay for the funding of the study? Any legit research would get trumped by a bigger one funded by the CRA - one that would get lots more press. A case in point is how the nicely done Italian study on aspartame was ignored by the press here in the states.
I applaud you King Corn Gentlemen!
Cynthia Lair

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