Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Corn Sugar" and Natural Flavor Beaver Sacs

I read food labels. A lot. It’s a new habit and it makes me feel like a food detective while shopping. If I see a box of crackers claiming to be “Whole Wheat” or “Natural,” I can’t help but check that claim with the ingredients list. Nine times out of ten, these words are gimmicks – the first ingredient in some “whole wheat” crisps is enriched flour and “natural” foods can still have tons of naturally-occurring chemicals.

Just what would unnatural food look like, anyway?
If you missed my previous post about bug-based food ingredients, feel free to check it out. This post will follow the same format.

“Natural Flavoring”

If you pick up a steak marinade, this ingredient might be floating in the bottle. Natural flavoring can come from just about anything: vegetables, fruits, meats, spices, or any oil or excretion derived from these sources. From this definition, I’d feel pretty safe snacking on some barbeque chips that use natural flavoring.

But then you hear about certain things included under “natural flavoring” that you’d probably not feel comfortable chewing… like the anal glands of a beaver.

"Dude, what?"
Castoreum, listed often as “natural flavoring,” is a by-product of the fur industry. The beaver (male and female) is killed, skinned, and then the glands between its anus and genitals are removed, smoked, and sold for our consumption.


Of course, beaver sacs are not the only things included as “natural flavoring.” But if something so seemingly inedible has snuck into our food, what else is creeping in under that same label?

Oh, and ladies? Castoreum is widely used in perfumes due to its pungent aroma. You may be dabbing beaver-butt-gland juice on your neck before a big night out.

So…  Much… Corn…
Those familiar with Big Agri know what I mean when I say America makes a hell of a lot of corn. But for those of you who don’t know, here are a couple of quick statistics from the USDA:

     * This year alone, farmers planted 96.4 million acres (over 150,000 square miles) of corn in the United States. That's the area of California. Compare this to cotton at 12.6 million acres or wheat at 56 million acres.

     *  In 2011, the US harvested 109,000 tons of corn for silage. That means this was the total weight of corn we fed to animals. The corn fed to humans was not included in this measurement. In comparison, we only grew 17,649 tons of potatoes.

Amber waves of grain? More like amber tidal waves of grain!
Corn is an amazing vegetable. Its molecular structure is simple enough that scientists can turn it into lots of different products. Through simple processes, corn can become fuel, flavoring, syrup, oil, seasoning, fiber, sugar, vitamins and much more. The amount of corn in the foods we eat every day is staggering.

Don’t believe me? Check out this link that shows the many forms that corn can come in. Spoiler alert, you’ll have to do quite a bit of scrolling to get to the bottom of the page.

The big one I want to focus on right now is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS.) Corn contains sugar in the form of glucose. Glucose is like that kid in high school that was friends with everybody – it’s what we call a “simple sugar.” Glucose is the first source of energy your body looks for; it breaks down quickly, and it can be stored easily.

Fructose, on the other hand, was that kid in high school who wore a lot of black, hid behind the Dumpsters and smoked like a chimney. Fructose doesn’t work well with the body. The liver processes what little it can, but usually fructose is converted to fat.

Wait just a minute now… If corn is made of glucose, where does the fructose come from?

Good question! The truth is that fructose doesn’t show up naturally in corn. Corn is processed by enzymes to turn glucose to fructose. That fructose is then mixed with corn syrup into a 55-45 blend of fructose to glucose, and voila! High fructose corn syrup!

Now, at of the time of this post, although there are a lot of articles arguing one way or the other, no single study has proven that HFCS is more dangerous than any other form of sugar. That’s what makes it okay for players in the corn industry to air this commercial:

For the record, they’re talking about high fructose corn syrup. The Corn Refiner's Association recently tried to re-brand all high fructose corn syrup in products as “corn sugar” to avoid bad press. The FDA blocked it, but HFCS masquerades as several different labels currently, so we could still see a new name in the future.

While technically not wrong (yes, the body treats HFCS the same way it would treat a different sugar,) the video misses the major point: high fructose corn syrup is everywhere. It’s becoming impossible to get away from the stuff. Even if it isn’t more dangerous, the simple fact is eating too much sugar, of any type, is unhealthy. And with the way HFCS has been sneaking into foods, regulating our sugar intake is becoming harder and harder.

This is why it’s important to read labels. Yes, feeling like the Sherlock Holmes of Safeway, the Columbo of Kroger, or the Matlock of Meijer is cool, but it’s also to your benefit. HFCS can show up in bread, condiments, juice, cereal, baking mixes and almost anything else you can think of. Being wary can cut your sugar intake by a hefty amount… And that’s something any doctor will agree is a good thing.

If you have an hour to kill and you'd like to learn more about American agriculture and how it shapes the foods we eat, check out this documentary for free on Hulu:

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