Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is the sweet life suddenly out of reach?

Most of us who are concerned with what we eat are aware of the questions surrounding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). At a minimum we are concerned with its presence in just about every processed food on the shelf. Take a minute and go to your pantry. Randomly select a couple of items and read the ingredients. It doesn't matter if what you are holding is cereal or salad dressing, chances are one, if not both, of those products lists HFCS among the first few ingredients.

Other concerns about HFCS surfaced January 26 when the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy issued a press release which stated: "Mercury was found in nearly 50 percent of tested samples of commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), according to a new article published today in the scientific journal, Environmental Health. A separate study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) detected mercury in nearly one-third of 55 popular brand name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second highest labeled ingredient--including products by Quaker, Hershey's, Kraft and Smucker's."

Of course there were immediate denials from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which issued its own press release on February 3. And since then the CRA has launched a massive ad campaign trying to redirect the conversation about HFCS started in part by author Michael Pollan, In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan points out that HFCS may be cheap in the supermarket, but its environmental footprint is very expensive. Not only does the American diet consists of too much HFCS (up to 20% of the calories in a child's diet, says Pollan in a Sierra magazine interview), but the corn monoculture is literally killing our natural environment.
If you care about your diet, maybe there are reasons to avoid HFCS. What other alternatives do you have? Sugar seems to be an option. Sugar was the sweetener of choice for food processors before the introduction of HFCS, and some still use it. One recent issue with sugar among "natural" food enthusiasts was the introduction of a genetically modified (GM) sugar beet by Monsanto, which saw its first harvest this past fall.

In May, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine released a position paper warning that GM foods "pose a serious health risk" and should be avoided. And in light of the recent GM beet harvest, more than 70 companies have signed a pledge promising to avoid using sugar from genetically modified sugar beets "wherever possible."
Next up is the latest sweetener to get a provisional nod from the FDA: stevia. Stevia has long been recognized as a health supplement by the FDA, and used as a sweetener by many natural food enthusiasts, but it has only recently been given the government's "generally recognized as safe" label, which allows it to be used in foods and beverages. Many feel this only came about because of pressure from big players like Coke and Pepsi, who saw the market for a "natural" sweetener in light of consumer movement toward more natural and organic products. Whatever the reason, stevia is now appearing in some drinks and is available in little packets right alongside the more familiar low-calorie sweeteners used for decades by weight conscious consumers.

On August 28, 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a press release in which it announced it had sent a letter to the FDA urging more testing of stevia before it was cleared for use in food and drinks in the United States. The CSPI asked that introduction be held off until further studies be conducted in light of short-term indications of possible mutations and DNA damage with long-term use and/or high-dosages of stevia.
Stevia has been used in Japan since the 1970s. In fact, it is the only legal low-calorie sweetener in use in Japan, and has apparently caused no ill effects. Those who are concerned with ill effects in the U.S. point to Americans' over indulgence in diet soft drinks, suggesting that it is the amount of stevia we would consume that might cause unforeseen problems.

The bottom line is probably something like this: Steer clear of most processed foods containing HFCS and sugar. The jury is still out on stevia. Avoid all of the artificial sweeteners. Most of this is plain old common sense. If you can figure out what it is without having to consult a chemist, then it probably isn't going to kill you if you only indulge occasionally and in moderation. Maybe the sweet life isn't out of reach after all.

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