By Debra Eschmeyer
Earlier last week the Corn Refiners Association launched a multimillion-dollar media campaign to defend high fructose corn syrup as a "quality" sweetener, in the face of mounting public perception that this cheap, ubiquitous compound has played a not-so-sweet role in making Americans chunky and sick. (See Marc's May post on the connection between HFCS price and consumption patterns.) Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the number of Americans with diabetes increased to 24 million in 2007. But that's just the tip of that deadly sundae: another 57 million Americans have pre-diabetes, a condition that vastly increases the risk of developing diabetes in the future.
Diabetes results when the body cannot use blood sugar as energy, either because it has too little insulin or because it cannot use insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% to 95% of cases, typically develops later in life and is associated with obesity and lack of exercise. Type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in children, occurs when the immune system mistakenly destroys cells that make the insulin. An estimated 1 in 3 children born in 2000 will be diabetic in their lifetime; the risk factor increases to 1 in 2 for Hispanics and African Americans.
I find the Corn Refiners Association's chutzpah unbelievable. Our already failing health care system is ill-prepared for the absolute crush and cost of the coming wave of diabetics, yet industry is spending millions of dollars to persuade us to partake of even more empty calories. With 30% of the U.S. population considered obese, as recently highlighted by the Washington Post and Time Magazine, the last thing our country needs is more sugar of any kind.
I am not a scientist, so I am not going to try to explain the molecular composition of this industrially derived corn byproduct, but I have witnessed firsthand what a lot of high fructose corn syrup will do to a diabetic. Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Taking a swig of a Coke (one serving is sweetened with 27 grams of high fructose corn syrup, as almost all sodas are) is like when that roller coaster starts to gain momentum; as you drink the last drop, your hands are up in the air and you're riding high. But then just moments later, you dip and your stomach is in your throat and suddenly your body is at a standstill — or worse, crashed. That is what HFCS (and many other sugars) do to your blood sugar: an intense pick-me-up, then a dramatic fall as your metabolism tries to manage the glycemic overload.
When my husband was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 25, we ate our meals like our life depended on it. In his case, it did — and still does. It was a dramatic change for a 190-pound, 6' 4" former college athlete. For months I cataloged every morsel that he ate in excruciating detail, noting the grams of carbohydrates so we could calculate what his failing pancreas could handle, i.e. two slices of whole wheat bread (22g) + garden veggie burger (5) + avocado (2) + 1/2 cup steamed green beans (5g) + side salad (8) + handful of grapes (15g) + milk (6.5) = 63.5 grams. According to our Diabetes Educator, the average person needs 136 grams of carbs a day for his brain to function. Amazingly enough, the Corn Refiners Association seems to think it is not enough that the average person ingests 270 calories [read: HFCS carbs] per day from soft drinks alone, according to nutritionist Marion Nestle.
For a young married couple that loves eating, turning the best part of the day into rations and ratios accompanied by nit-picky nagging, "You shouldn't eat that much bread" or "Don't you dare pick up that cookie!" was not enjoyable, to say the least. But every time he raised a sugar-laced sweet to his mouth, all I saw was an amputated foot ... or a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness. Food became a necessary evil at that point.
Diabetes is a silent disease; it doesn't strike quick and fast like some cancers, but its reach is far, its grip tight, and its blow deadly. Thanks to advances in modern medicine — insulin — diabetes has transformed from an acute disease (with a death sentence typically within a year) into a disease that slowly destroys a body with debilitating side affects; my husband would describe the result as bittersweet.
"It is a disease that does have the ability to eat you alive. It can be just awful — it's almost unimaginable how bad it can be," said Dr. John B. Buse, a professor at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine and is the Diabetes Association's president for medicine and science, in a recent New York Times article titled "Diabetes: Underrated, Insidious and Deadly."
Our bodies and society need us to stop eating sweeteners like HFCS, which are empty of any nutrition except calories. Efforts like those by the Corn Refiners Association do nothing but harm at-risk populations — the millions of existing diabetics and pre-diabetics in our country — and everyone else who must help shoulder the burden through rising health care costs.
But the good news is that we can help eradicate Type II diabetes and help keep blood sugar levels on an even keel for Type I diabetics, possibly eliminating the awful long-term effects of both types. All we need to do is encourage people to eat real food. And that means no highly processed food and no HFCS, just good, fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed beef, pastured poultry...all the foods that our great grandparents would list in their cookbooks. Ones that actually have flavor!
So even if the Corn Refiners Association has $30 million to throw at us to confuse and contort what we should be eating, the good-food movement is strong and growing ever stronger through community gardens, farm to school programs, farmers markets, healthy corner stores, and the beginning farmers movement. To please our taste buds and our pancreases, my husband and I continue to enjoy eating the HFCS-free fruits and vegetables that we grow on our beginning organic farm. I hope millions of eaters will prove to the sugar daddies that we are smarter than their almighty marketing dollars.
Some excellent books that mention the role of high fructose corn syrup in our diet debacle:
Debra Eschmeyer is the marketing & media manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice; she also works a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she raises organic heirloom fruits, vegetables, and chickens. Formerly she was the project director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC, where she focused on U.S. agricultural policy and food sovereignty initiatives among grassroots domestic and international rural advocacy and other social justice networks.