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:
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?
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.
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