That's 11-year-old Cam Halloran talking to me. He's trying to raise my awareness of the dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup
and talking knowledgeably about a sweetner that is added to our food and drink on a massive scale.
I've never seen Cam so serious. This photo of him hamming it up with his cousin Logan, who is on the 4-wheeler, is the way he usually is: fun-loving, easygoing, not a big talker. But he was fully engaged in this conversation with me and his Mom, Linda Halloran.
With the three of us sitting outside the family cottage looking out on beautiful Lake Saccarappa, Ms. Halloran had brought up the subject of High Fructose Corn Syrup. She described how a recent nutrition seminar she had taken at Dana-Farber Medical Center in Boston had been an eye-opener on HFCS. In the photo below, she is shown working at her hair salon
"I was just blown away," she said. "I knew about it but I didn't realize that it was so bad. You know me, I've been eating and cooking healthy for a long time and generally avoiding HFCS. But I was shocked at what it can do to your body and the fact that it seems to be in just about everything. And it's covered up with labels like 'natural' and 'low-fat.' You have to be so careful. That seminar changed my life."
"Me, too," Cam said. "I completely stay away from that stuff and you should, too, Uncle George."
"Well, Cam, I do watch what I eat, have lots of fruits and vegetables, and prepare food at home intead of eating out. You look like you've lost a little weight."
"I have. I make sure I don't eat any of that stuff any more. On top of everything else it does to you, it makes you fat."
His Mom smiled approvingly. "That's right, he has lost weight and its because since that Dana-Farber seminar, as a family we are super-aware of the importance of avoiding HFCS. HFCS is a big reason that so many people, especially kids, are overweight. If you think Cam is up on the subject, you should hear Karina."
Karina, 13, is Cam's sister. She was away at camp.
"Are you sure you aren't eating stuff with HFCS, Uncle George?" Ms. Halloran asked.
"Yeah, I'm aware of it. I'm pretty careful."
"Just for the heck of it, why don't you check when you get home. Check your yogurts and cereals. Give me a call and let me know if you find anything."
Now I love my Yoplait Very Vanilla yogurts. Yummy. I have one or two of them every day. I also love my cereal, which I have at night with 1% lowfat milk and a banana and piled high with blueberries. Yummy. I have felt very good about these foods for some years now. Fat-free yogurt. Rice Krispies with zero saturated fat and zero trans fat. Low-fat milk. A banana. Fresh blueberries.
Why shouldn't I feel good about foods that fairly shout Healthy Eating?
When I got home and checked my Yoplait Light Fat Free Very Vanilla yogurt with zero saturated fat and zero trans fat and my Kellogg's Rice Krispies with zero saturated fat and zero trans fat and with "Nutrition at a Glance" information touting nutritional value, I felt a bit sheepish.
There it was, in both of them, under ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup
. Cam the 11-year-old kid was more nutritionally aware than I, the grown-up writer of a blog on healthy living and longevity who is supposed to be up on such things.
"Can you believe it," I said to my wife Barbara as she took my picture holding up my HFCS-laden Yoplait yogurt and her truly healthy Stonyfield yogurt. I'm smiling in the photo, but I have no right to be.
"I tried to tell you, "she said. "but you didn't listen to me. You never listen to me."
Yikes! Shown up by an 11-year-old, rightfully, and scolded by my good wife, rightfully, on the same day. I set out to write a helpful little post and this is what I get? All I could do with Barbara was grovel on the kitchen floor apologizing and asking for a second chance. "I'm sorry, " I said. "I promise to listen to you from now on."
I suppose Cam will want me to grovel, too. Oh, well. With my credibility shot to hell and my self-respect at a new low, I'll now try to crawl out of this big hole I have dug for myself. I'll start with a few excuses ( telling you something about my character on top of what you know about my credibility.)
I always thought of HFCS as a problem of sodas and fruit drinks, neither of which I drink, ever, because they are so loaded with the sweetner. So I thought: no use, no worry. I just now realize how thoroughly HFCS had quietly infiltrated into my supposedly healthy diet of lots of fruits and vegetables and home-cooked meals using natural ingredients.
I usually do check the ingredients for things like trans fats and HFCS, but didn't with the Yoplait yogurt and the Kellogg's Rice Krispies. With Yoplait, I fixated on the words "light" and "fat free" and "1/3 Fewer Calories than Regular Lowfat Yogurts." At a glance, which is all I gave them, those words say healthy and good for you. I have associated Rice Krispies with wholesomeness for so long that I think I just didn't want to even think that anything as bad as HFCS could be in it. It was somehow unpatriotic.
These may be excuses, but I think they are common, understandable, and (hopefully) forgivable. The marketing and the health coverings are so cleverly diverting that millions of busy shoppers are taken in as easily as I was. Food manufacturers may take out the fat. But to maintain flavor and sweetness, they replace the fat with a cheap sweetner, HFCS. So my supposedly healthy Yoplait Lowfat yogurt can have twice as much HFCS as a full-fat brand!
For the record, Kellogg's Rice Krispies are now history for me. So is Yoplait yogurt, which I have replaced with Dannon Lowfat Yogurt. The Dannon container shouts "No Artificial Anything." I made the choice only after carefully reading the list of ingredients. Let's hope Cam doesn't see something that I missed. I don't know how much more battering my ego can take.
I realize apologies, excuses, and changing my ways are not enough to get me back in good graces. So let me try another tack. Since discovering the error of my nutritional ways, I've been doing some serious research on High Fructose Corn Syrup. If I share with you what I have learned, will you give me another chance? You can't see me, but I am on my knees begging. (After you grovel once or twice, it gets easier.)
You will? Oh, thank you!
Why, exactly, is High Glucose Corn Syrup so bad for you? According information Linda Halloran brought back from her nutritional seminar at Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston, HFCS is a "health nightmare" causing the following:
Raised Blood Pressure -- Levels of inflammatory uric acid spike, which can raise blood pressure by 32%.
Aging of the Liver -- HFCS reduces the liver's ability to detoxify the body and break down fat. This causes chronic inflammation and premature aging of the liver.
Impaired Pancreas --Beta cells of the pancreas become less responsive to blood sugar changes, which can cause high blood sugar, insulin resistance and diabetes.
Sagging of Skin -- the Maillard reaction, a cross-linking of the proteins that makes skin smooth, is speeded up.
Memory Loss -- People with high levels of HFCS by-products in their blood are five times more likely to score below average on memory tests.
Weight Gain -- Appetite-regulating hormones are disabled, so you feel hungry even after a large meal. Because the liver's ability to break down fat for fuel is reduced, the body is forced to store more fat.
At the seminar, Ms. Halloran also learned that you can't always be sure you are getting wheat bread even when it is labeled wheat. "Most breads that say they are wheat actually are not!" Ms. Halloran said. She said that the bread must carry the word "whole" to be real whole wheat bread free of HFCS and other chemicals.
When she got back from the seminar, Ms. Halloran went to the supermarket to see if she could find authentic whole wheat bread. "I spent an hour at Price Chopper in the bread isle. There was only one!!!! It was Dark German Wheat Bread. So that's what I bought. It tastes the same as other breads and my family is not consuming extra chemicals."
Gerard E. Mullin, M.D., Director of Integrative GI Nutrition services at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, says that HFCS has a devatating impact on human physiology. He says that it "significantly disrupts the function of the liver and pancreas, organs that control weight by metabolizing fatty acids and regulating blood sugar."
Repeated exposure to HFCS triggers a "health sapping cycle," according to a Dana-Farber nutritional seminar handout. Richard J. Johnson, M.D.., professor of medicine at the University of Florida in Gainsville, explains: "Eventually, even a single large dose of HFCS can trigger energy shock in the liver -- a sudden, severe drop in the organ's function. And that can impact dozens of bodily systems."
I asked an old friend from Northhampton, Mass., Marybeth Home, a certified nutritionist, what she thought about HFCS. She referred me to the website of Dr. Joseph Mercola and an article entitled, "The Plague of High Fructose Corn Syrup in Processed Foods." The article states: "The consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup not only exacerbates the obesity epidemic, it also harms the way primary organs like the liver and pancreas function, leading to bone loss, anemia, and heart problems, just to name a few." You can read this article and others at mercola.com
There are, however, views on HFCS that are very different from those espoused by Dana-Farber and Dr. Mercola, such as those found on hfcsfacts.com
. There you will read that HFCS is just as natural as sugar: "HFCS, like table sugar and honey, is natural. HFCS is made from corn -- a natural grain product. HFCS contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the Food and Drug Administration's policy for use of the term "natural."
Funny how a simple word like "natural" can make people go to war. It's true the FDA has approved HFCS as a natural and safe sweetener, but it certainly isn't natural in the sense that I understand the word. Getting from corn starch to HFCS is a long, complicated process. It involves application of genetically modified enzymes, which to me is anything but natural.
Also not natural are all those great vats of murky fermenting liquid and all the chemical tweaking -- three successive chemical processes -- that takes place in 16 chemical plants throughout the Corn Belt. Despite all the mashing and boiling and mixing and all the special enzymes required, HFCS is much cheaper than sugar. It's also easy to transport -- it's just piped into tanker trucks. This means lower costs and bigger profits for food conglomorates, dominated by four giant corporations: Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co., and CPC International.
While many researchers say there is a direct link between the obesity epidemic and HFCS, hfcsfacts.com -- a site run by the Corn Refiner's Association -- sees no evidence of this and cites studies to that effect. "Obesity results from an imbalance of calories consumed and colories burned," the site says. I would agree with that statement in itself, but I also see 11-year-old Cam Halloran slimming down a few months after cutting out all HFCS and that being his only dietary change.
Ms. Halloran said, "My husband and two kids ... have taken HFCS out of our lives. My husband and son have both lost weight doing so -- there's the extra bonus!! I am also losing weight, but doing it the balanced way -- eating healthy and exercising."
The start of the obesity epidemic almost perfectly coincides with the explosion of HFCS use in the early 1980's. A coincidence? Maybe. Research studies cited by hfcsfacts.com legitimately conclude that there is a lack of evidence that HFCS is a major cause of obesity. But with the livlihood of the Corn Refiner's Association at stake, it's research can hardly be expected to find otherwise.
If HFCS and rampant obesity ramping up at about the same time is mere coincidence, I find that both eerie and highly suspicious. This conclusion might not pass muster with a peer-reviewed research journal but, as they say where I come from, "it's good enough for poor people" -- and it's poor people who are overwhelmingly the victims of the obesity epidemic.
The down and dirty truth is that HFCS turns what we eat into a genetically and chemically altered industrial food. Michael Pollan, the author of the "The Omnivore's Dilemma," defines an industrial food as "any food whose provenance is so complex and obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain." Tell me, before you read this piece, did you have any idea what HFCS is? Did you know you were eating it? Did you know that a lot of smart people think that it is a threat to your health?
I have already admitted that I was only vaguely aware of HFCS and its health implications. But what I have learned since has convinced me that this is something I don't want in my body. I love corn, but I don't don't think I can now think of corn as corn. I know that just when I'm not looking, just when my guard is down, it turns up as manmade fructrose. Today we Americans consume more HFCS than sugar, something I find astounding.
I'm also a little angry -- not my usual emotional mode -- that HFCS is widely slipped to us under the cover of healthy-sounding marketing. This is deliberate deception and so-called health foods, like my Yoplait, are among the worst offenders.
Well, my guard against HFCS is up now and it's going to stay up.
The other day my friend and tennis partner Jim Kane and I were at the Worcester Tennis Club waiting for the courts to be ready. I was telling him about this post and how shocked I was to learn that HFCS seemed to be in everything, even my Yoplait yogurt and Kellogg's Rice Krispies.
"I wonder if there's any in my Gatorade?" he asked. Nodding to the bottle of Gatorade poking out of his tennis bag, he said, "Why don't you check it out?"
I went over, picked it up, and checked the ingredients.
"It's there. High Fructose Corn Syrup. Can you believe it?"
Between games, Jim sipped his Gatorade -- but did so hiding under a towel. We played again today and I brought my camera, planning to ambush him by taking a picture of him sneaking his Gatorade.
"Got your Gatorade, Jim? I brought my camera."
"No. Forgot. I rushed out so fast ..."
Sure, Jim. Sure.
So long and keep moving.