The Best of Gut Check: Ian vs. the Corn Refiners Association

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While Gut Check is on vacation, enjoy highlights from the past two years.

Silly me, thinking I could share my desert-island fantasies without any consequences.

In last week's review of Taqueria el JalapeƱo, I wrote the following:
It won't surprise regular readers of this column to learn that if I were stranded on a desert island, I'd want the only restaurant there to be a taqueria. I'd set up shelter within walking distance of both the surf and the food and grow fat and happy on tacos al pastor, tortas the size of my head and Mexican Coca-Cola -- the real Real Thing, made with sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup -- in dewy glass bottles.
In the mail today was a large envelope from the Corn Refiners Association, an organization with a rather auspicious return address: 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

"Dear Mr. Froeb," the letter begins. (Mr. Froeb is my father, actually. You can call me Ian.)
We read the February 25 article "Taco the Town..." with interest. There is a lot of confusion about high-fructose corn syrup. We would like to provide you with science-based information on this safe sweetener and be a reference for you for future articles.

Even former critics of high-fructose corn syrup dispel long-held myths and distance themselves from earlier speculation about the sweetener's link to obesity...
It goes on. And that's just the two-page letter. The association also included numerous glossy handouts on the myths about HFCS as well as a photocopy of a 2006 New York Times article titled "A Sweetener with a Bad Rap."

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Ian Froeb
It cost $1.52 to mail all this.
Someone's a little touchy. Because all I did was restate my preferred preference for Mexican Coca-Cola over its American sibling. The Mexican version is still made with sugar -- as was domestic Coke for most of its existence. Does that mean Mexican Coca-Cola is "better" for you because it lacks HFCS? Hell if I know. I'm no scientist -- though when it comes to sugar- or HFCS-laden soft drinks, I think arguments about health might be moot. At any rate, I was just sharing my opinion: Mexican Coke tastes better.

I don't fault the Corn Refiners Association for doing its job. And I can't say I was surprised by the response -- only that they found me here in flyover country. But the organization has been on the offensive lately, with its Sweet Surprise Web site and a TV ad campaign:



As I said, I'm no scientist, and I haven't done enough reading on the health effects of HFCS to make a judgment either way. However, I have done a great deal of reading on the food system here in the United States, and HFCS is another example of that system's overdependence on corn and processed food. (Or, as Michael Pollan would call it, "food.")

I find it interesting that nearly all of the material the Corn Refiners Assocation sent me was dedicated to dispelling myths about the impact of HFCS on our health. For example, of the ten "Top Published Myths about High Fructose Corn Syrup," only the last two dealt with its role in the larger food system.
Myth: High-fructose corn syrup costs taxpayers millions of dollars in tax subsidies.

Reality: While the U.S. government does provide support to certain farmers to guarantee a stable farm economy and reliable food supply, manufacturers of corn sweeteners do not receive these subsidies.
While strictly true, the presentation of this "myth" and its "reality" is disingenuous. The "taxpayer" ploy pushes an easy button so that we don't think about the larger picture. No, HFCS manufacturers don't receive government subsidies directly, but the U.S. food system is based, in part, on subsidizing commodity farmers for growing more corn than needed. One of the many consequences of this corn glut is that manufacturers were able to turn some corn into HFCS and then sell it to food firms as a cheaper alternative to sugar.

The second "myth" deals with the cost issue:

Myth: High-fructose corn syrup is used in food only because it's cheap.
Reality: Price may have prompted manufacturers to switch from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup twenty years ago, but it is no longer a primary factor since high-fructose corn syrup has specific and unique functional qualities not shared by sugar. In addition, the price of corn is rising substantially due to demand.

Corn sweeteners enjoy widespread use because they benefit consumers by reducing food spoilage, retaining moisture in foods, helping canned foods taste fresher, enhancing fruit and spice flavors and prolonging product freshness. Among many other benefits, high-fructose corn syrup allows breakfast bars to remain moist and makes bran cereal palatable.
And, really, who can argue with making bran cereal more palatable?

Seriously, though, this argument, too, is troubled. It's based on the assumption that those "unique functional qualities" listed above are inherently good in and of themselves. Those of us seeking to reduce or eliminate the amount of processed foods in our diet would argue that none of those qualities benefit us in the long run because they are the crutches that keep us from choosing fresh, whole foods.

This argument won't be settled any time soon. But the sheer amount of money that the Corn Refiners Association is willing to spend on p.r. materials -- and the fact that they would reach out to me based on one paragraph of a review of a taqueria in St Louis -- might give you some idea of the argument's stakes.
 
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