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The Not Simple, Not Natural Story of High Fructose Corn Syrup

After a series of sticky days punctuated by nightly thunderstorms, last Saturday was a blessing here in North Carolina. The morning air was crisp, cool, and dry. White fluffy clouds rode on a comfy breeze against a bright blue background. It was an ideal day for a Fall Harvest Festival, and, fortunately for us, there happened to be one taking place down at Indigo Farms in scenic Calabash, North Carolina.

We had a wonderful time checking out the farm critters and the old farm machines. They had friendly folks demonstrating weaving, spinning, grinding, paper making, and whole lot of other old-fashioned skills. One of them that brought me up short was a few fellows standing over an old cast iron pot which was being heated on a small wood fire. I soon discovered they were making cane syrup from sugar cane that was grown on the farm.

As I watched the extracted liquid from the cane plants being slowly simmered down into syrup, I got to thinking how many people have been fooled into thinking that this traditional method is pretty much how high fructose corn syrup is made. At first glance, you can’t really blame them for this mistaken assumption.

After all, the marketing mavens who work for the Corn Refiners Association have spent a bundle of money trying to convince the public that “high fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar.” Anyone who has ever savored a batch of freshly picked sweet corn can testify that the tender kernels might just deliver a tasty liquid that could be boiled down to make a healthy and delicious syrup. If you think of it that way, high fructose corn syrup sounds like a simple, natural, potentially healthy substance.

Unfortunately, this pretty vision isn’t even close to the truth.

Manufacturing high fructose corn syrup isn’t simple, it isn’t natural, and the results certainly aren’t healthy. The first clue that this ubiquitous sweetener might not be natural hits you when you find out what type of corn is used to make it. Instead of using tasty, tender kernels of organically grown heirloom sweet corn, manufacturers use tough, starchy kernels of genetically modified dent corn—the starchier the better. If you’ve ever driven through Iowa, you’ve probably seen acres and acres of this corn being grown, and you might have been tempted to stop the car and snatch an ear or two of farm grown goodness. If so, you’d be in for a rude surprise. This corn tastes terrible. It turns into a nasty paste in your mouth.

The sad truth is that American farmers grow billions of bushels of corn that no human being, including their families, can eat. A whole lot of this corn goes to feed livestock, some is used to make ethanol, and another significant batch is used to make corn syrup. Since 1995, the American taxpayers have shelled out about $77 billion in corn subsidies. With this financial incentive, Americans grow way too much corn, and a lot of it sits around for many months before being used. Traveling through the Midwest, you’ll find mountains of corn kernels sitting next to stuffed siloes. These dried-out, tough, starchy kernels of corn are the basis of high fructose corn syrup.

The first step in making this “natural” sweetener is turning these leathery nuggets into corn starch. Most manufacturers use a wet milling process that involves warm water and a small amount of a caustic substance like sulfur dioxide. Once you’ve got your corn starch, you treat it with an enzyme called alpha-amylase to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Alpha-amylase is usually manufactured using the Bacillus species of bacteria. You may or may not gain a measure of comfort knowing that the industrial plants that produce alpha-amylase purify it before shipping it off to the plants that manufacture high fructose corn syrup.

Once we’ve put our cornstarch through the alpha-amylase step, we need to introduce an enzyme called glucoamylase. This will break the sugar chains down even further and yield the simple sugar glucose. In case you’re wondering, manufacturing glucoamylase requires no bacteria. They use a fungus called Aspergillus. If you could examine the fermentation tanks where this process takes place, you’d see cute little balls of Aspergillus floating on the top of the vat. Kind of whets your appetite, though, don’t it?

Let’s see, we’ve subjected our tough kernels of dent corn to a bit of sulfur dioxide, alpha-amylase, and glucoamylase so far, so what’s our next step to make this simple corn sugar? Oh yes, we now need to get our hands on a rather expensive enzyme called glucose-isomerase. Don’t worry too much about the cost. Unlike the caustic substance and the other two enzymes, glucose-isomerase is reusable because it is packed in columns and the sugar mixture is passed over it.

So, do we have high fructose corn syrup yet? Nope!

We still need to go through a liquid chromatography step which will bring the mixture up to 90 percent fructose, and then we’ll need to add our high fructose substance back into the original mixture until we achieve the 55 percent fructose point that commercial food producers prefer for ideal sweetness.

That’s all there is to it!

As you can see, there is nothing simple or natural about the production of high fructose corn syrup. Without even delving too far into the fact that high fructose corn syrup does not occur in nature or restating the health difficulties mentioned in my previous column, knowing that almost all high fructose corn syrup is made from genetically modified corn should be enough to scare you away from the stuff. Numerous studies have shown that GM corn causes significant changes to blood cells, kidneys, and the liver. It has also been blamed for potentially life-threatening allergies that have occurred in some people. Even if this sweetener had any health benefits (and it does not), the risks of consuming a substance made from genetically modified corn would not be worth the rewards. Why then, would you want to take the risks when there are absolutely no health rewards?

In 1970, right around the time high fructose corn syrup made its appearance in the American diet, around 15 percent of American adults were considered obese. Four decades or so later, one out of three Americans fit the requirements for being considered obese. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that high fructose corn syrup is the only factor in our national weight gain. It is, however, one of the pieces of the puzzle, and one that you should seriously consider avoiding.

Before I go, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read my two part rant about the stuff the Corn Refiners Association is trying to convince you is merely “corn sugar.” Here’s wishing each and every one of you a healthy and happy harvest in your survival garden.

©2011 Off the Grid News

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