Take Your PIC

Take your PIC: Bonding with Food presents the Public Information Campaign

PIC Presentations

Presenting at the Public Information Campaign

As part of an initiative to inform the public about current food issues, the Public Information Campaign was a night of presentations aimed to educate about topics such as fats, pesticides, organic vs. conventional foods, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners, which are detailed below.

High Fructose Corn Syrup. Sounds scary right? But it’s in so much of our food, from candy to fruit juice, bread to chicken nuggets.

Sweet surprise or deadly demise?

Sweet surprise or deadly demise?

So what is “High Fructose Corn Syrup”? To be honest, I didn’t really know prior to this assignment. I had some vague idea about some sugar/starch conspiracy that caused diabetes. And considering the popular media, it’s not surprising that this was my concept of High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS.

This video, above, is a response to an ad, below, by the Corn Grower’s Association, a national group that represents the corn refining industry in America, attempting to dispel HFCS’s negative image.

But where is the truth? Is HFCS poisoning our food or is it the same as sugar? Initially, I thought it had to be some cover-up by the corn industry and that it was actually causing diabetes and cancer and everything other health malady, but by digging deeper, I learned that the issue is much more complicated than it initially appears.

High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, is a liquid sweetener derived from #2 corn (commodity corn) which is grown in higher yield than sweet corn. Where table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide (double sugar) made of glucose and fructose bonded together, HFCS has both of these sugars, but individually rather than bonded.

Sweet Structures

Sweet Structures

While HFCS does not have identical structure to table sugar, it is made up of the same components. So is it the same?

Due to its nature as a mixture of two sugars, glucose and fructose, there are two pathways by which HFCS is metabolized.


Differences in digestion between glucose and fructose

Due to these differences, HFCS has been blamed for the rise of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases as rates or these rose at the same time that HFCS was rising in use, but does this imply a causal link?

Lemons Graph

The graph above shows an apparent trend of a decrease in US highway fatalities and the number of lemons imported from Mexico increases. Clearly, the imported lemons have no effect on highway safety, but since the increase of one is concurrent with the decrease of the other, it could be assumed that there is a causal link between them. A similar coincidence may have occurred with the concurrent rise of HFCS and chronic disease, such that HFCS might appear to cause these diseases due to a mere coincidence.

However, it is important to note that while HFCS may not directly be causing these issues, increased sugar intake as a result of the increased use of HFCS could certainly create this health concerns. The average American consumes about 19 teaspoons (75 grams) of sugar a day, and since HFCS represents 42% of those sugars, at the very least the calories from HFCS are having a negative effect on our health, if not the substance itself.

Studies have supported both the idea that HFCS causes chronic disease and the idea that it has no effect, and there is no conclusive evidence yet, so while both the use of HFCS and chronic disease have increase in the past 40 years, there is not yet a proven causal link and the complexity of the issue has yet to be fully explained.

So what I know now is that I didn’t actually know what I thought I knew! My views of high fructose corn syrup were unfairly biased based on information that didn’t actually exist. And interestingly, I had a similar experience with the other topics at the Public Information Campaign, finding that what I thought I knew was just inaccurate. Here’s some of the highlights:

I thought that I knew that some artificial sweeteners eat holes in your brain, but apparently  the truth is that while some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners such as Spenda have negative health effects, but these used doses as high as 3000 mg/kg body weight/day or 17,200 packets in an average person per day, indicating that the level necessary for this effect is impossibly high for normal consumption. I mean, if you drank that much water in a day, it would have “negative health effects” (death) a whole lot sooner! In fact Stevia, a sweetener derived from the Stevia plant, been shown to have positive health effect like increasing glucose tolerance and anti-hypertensive/inflammatory/tumor/hyperglycemic effects.

And I was always under the impression that “0” means “none”, but apparently not according to the FDA: FDA regulations state that foods can be labeled as “0 grams trans fat” as long as there are <0.5 grams of trans fats per serving (a trans fat is a particular shape of fat produced by partial hydrogenation resulting in a rearrangement of unsaturated fat structure).

Gir Scout Cookies

“Partially Hydrogenated Oil” means trans fat, so how can it say 0?

Trans Fat

A trans-unsaturated fatty acid
Red circles indicate trans (zigzag) double bond structure.

As there is partially hydrogenated oil in the cookies, there are actually trans fats, despite the misleading label.

In terms of  meat production, while farms are required to test their products for contaminants, such as E. Coli., Listeria, and Salmonella, they do not have to wait for the results of these tests before sending the products to market, and choose instead to recall the product if it is later found to test positive for these contaminants.

Personally, I eat two or three apples a day, so I was disappointed to learn that they top the list for the twelve foods with the most pesticide contamination, according to a list created by The Environmental Working Group. They also created a list of the fifteen foods with the most pesticide contamination (“Clean Fifteen”). Go onions!

The Clean Fifteen

The “Clean Fifteen”

The Dirty Dozen

The “Dirty Dozen”

But if you want to get pesticides off your food, water is just as good as a commercial fruit and vegetable wash, according to a study by Dr. Walter Krol of the Department of Analytical Chemistry at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Apparently the mechanical force of running water was effective in removing pesticides.

Veggie wash or wash your veggies?

Veggie wash or wash your veggies?

Overall, some themes occurred again and again throughout the presentations, including:

Read food labels: One of the fastest and easiest ways to find out what you’re eating is to read the label. Even serial numbers can tell you something. In fact, if the serial number has a “9” in front, it’s an organic food!

Look critically at studies: While everyone likes to use “scientific studies” as “proof”, sometimes the studies can be misleading. Of course artificial sweeteners are bad for you if you eat 17,000 packets of them in one day!

Consider bias in all information: Any interest group is going to want you to think that their product is good (or at least not bad) for you. And their opponents will want you to think that it’s awful so that you buy theirs instead. So who funded that add that told you corn sugar is the same as regular sugar? Was it the Corn Refiner’s Association? Just because it was, does that mean the information is necessarily inaccurate? No, it just means that you should be aware of what they might want you to think.

“The best choice” depends on what you are looking to add or avoid: No trans fat! High in vitamins! Diet! No carbs! Low fat! Sugar-free! These are all advertizing slogans, but what’s really important? Well, that’s up to you. Do you want to trade sugar for Splenda and avoid calories? Go for it! But that doesn’t mean that everyone should.

“Clean” is relative: So back to my apples. If I’m concerned about pesticides on them what can I do? First off, wash them! Will it help? Probably, but if I’m still worried, I can switch to organic apples, which certified as being grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. But I’m going to wash those organic apples too, because manure is organic but that doesn’t mean I want to eat it.

Everything in moderation: Yep, it’s still true! Whether it’s sugar or fats, even vitamins, enough of anything will kill you. So do you have to avoid Oreos for life because they have trans fats? Not if you don’t want to! But you probably also shouldn’t eat them three meals a day, everyday, for ten years.

Overall, I loved this assignment because it confused me. I’m glad that it attacked my “this is good, that is bad” ideas about certain foods, because the truth is somewhere in between.


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