Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fields of American Sweetness

(I wrote this over the summer when I was in Mexico. I don't think I ever posted it, but I just saw some footage for the movie King Corn, which seems to cover a lot of the same issues discussed here, so I looked up the file in my computer and decided to put it up. I had been reading about King Corn for a while, and I am excited to see this documentary)

I used to deliver newspapers to a man who some people believe is one of the most evil people to have been in power for the past twenty years. More about that later.

Lately I have been trying lots of new foods. Being in Mexico City for a while, and me being who I am, I am anxious to try all of food products that are in the world around me. This ranges from going to restaurants to snooping around in grocery stores to challenging the sketchiest of street vendor food, I want to do it all. It’s not hard to find a snack in Mexico City. Food is everywhere, and I have started to notice that it kind of shows. Although there aren’t very many obese Mexicans as far as I have noticed, there do seem to be quite a few “husky” adults. Although I don’t have any facts or figures on this, I can’t help but think that this is in part due to the immense popularity of American-style fast food and junk food. I went to the zoo today (bad idea) and was not completely surprised to see droves of zoo-goers eating McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza at the official zoo food court. I would never say that the traditional Mexican diet has been low in fat, because that is certainly not the case, but I would venture to say that it is not traditionally as high in fat or sugar as the fast food and snack food imports that they now enjoy. Fat and sugar are not the only problems with American style fast food, as we all know that the quality of this food and the processing that goes into is of equal concern.

All of this then reminded me of a book that I read a few summers ago while I was on a band tour in Europe. The book was called Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, and it was interesting to read about the ills of the American diet while seeing how they do it in Europe. I was enjoying some of the best meals of my entire life, eating rich, sugary and delicious food, but I just didn’t see overweight people like I did in the United States. Interestingly, this book that I was reading provided a clue as to what was different about the American diet which contributes to dietary epidemic which exists in the United States.

One point (and it is a controversial one because it deals with race) that the book makes is that the reason for the epidemic of obesity among blacks and Hispanics in the United States is because blacks and Hispanics is because people of these races are genetically predisposed to diets in which food is not guaranteed to be available. The author calls this the “starvation gene” or “thrifty gene” and notes that in terms of evolution, the metabolisms of people of these ethnicities are trained to store calories as soon as they are available because there was not always enough food available at regular intervals. Historically speaking, white people’s metabolisms are more accustomed to having more calories available and to not using them. This is what the book says, anyway. This alone doesn’t completely explain why this seems to be a problem that exists for blacks and Hispanics in the United States and not in other parts of the world. The book, however, offers another important clue as to what makes the US diet so adversely different: A little ingredient known as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). You’ve probably seen this ingredient in your favorite soda, or in a few other sweetened products that you have around the house. What is high fructose corn syrup? Is there really that much sweetness in corn? HFCS, it turns out, is one of the most unhealthy and prevalent ingredients out there in American food. So, you maybe you thought that soda contains sugar. It tastes sugary, it’s sweet, it can rot your teeth like sugar does. Well, soda used to contain sugar, until the secretary of agriculture of the United States, a man by the name of Earl Butz, aided the subsidization of corn production in the United States so that it could be turned into HFCS and offered to soft drink manufacturers as a cheaper alternative to cane sugar (which was largely imported from overseas). A higher demand for HFCS meant more money for American corn farmers. What could be wrong with that? Well, nothing, except that HFCS is way worse for the human body than any processed sugar ever was. In JAMA’s review of Fat Land, they put it this way: “Fructose is processed more rapidly and more efficiently than glucose; fructose catabolism leads to increased fatty acid synthesis and esterification and secretion of very low-density lipoprotein. Thus, we have ingested what can be viewed as fuel for a fat factory”. This also explains why type II diabetes (the acquired kind) is so prevalent in blacks and Hispanics who live in the United States. Not surprisingly, the conversion of the soft drink industry from sugar to HFCS corresponds with the sudden increase in cases of type II diabetes in the United States.

In my opinion, HFCS does not taste the same. It is not a mystery why Mexican Coca-Cola and kosher Coca-Cola (both of which are cane sugar-sweetened) go for extra monies on the black market, eBay, etc. in the US. Another interesting phenomenon is the popularity of Dublin Dr. Pepper from Dublin, Texas, which is a holdout to the original formulation that is still sweetened with cane sugar instead of HFCS. People in Texas seem to have a fanatical relationship with this soda, calling them simply “Dublins.” I’ve had one, and truth be told, you really can taste a difference. It’s no B.S. A can of HFCS-sweetened beverage just leaves me with a gross feeling.

Side note: (One of my favorite [although pretty unlikely] conspiracy theories has to do with the possibility that Coca-Cola’s disastrous switch to “new Coke” back in the 80’s was actually a way of masking the change in flavor from sugar to HFCS by temporarily removing original Coke from the market, and that they had intended to continue to produce “Coca-Cola Classic” all along, complete with supposed reports from Coke employees seeing “Classic” packaging in Coke factories even before New Coke was introduced to the market. I love this kind of conspiracy, but I kinda doubt it.)

So what’s the deal with delivering newspapers to an evil dude? Earl Butz used to be my neighbor, and I was his paper boy. He lived about a block away from us in West Lafayette, Indiana. My mother had told me that he used to be the secretary of agriculture, which when I was 10 years old or whatever didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but when his name came up in Fat Land, I was like “Well, how weird is that?” HFCS isn’t the only awesome ingredient that Mr. Butz had the distinction of introducing into the American diet. He is also responsible for bringing palm oil (another pretty cruddy ingredient) to a variety of snack foods (Bugles and low-quality chocolate [both chock full of palm oil] are delicious!).

But as is the case with most political arguments attacking the United States, the actions of our political leaders are ultimately the result of the total apathy of the people. In the case of horrible (in tastes as well as health) ingredients being introduced into our diets, Americans have been voting with their dollars, and for the most part, Americans have been voting “yes” for the garbage that the food industry has producing for us. How is the American diet different from the European diet? Many Americans simply don’t have a passion or even a real interest in the food that they eat. Americans are less and less involved in preparing their own foods, and therefore increasingly out of touch with what goes into the food they eat. Whether or not this apathy is a result of the fast food industry or whether the fast food industry came about as a result of America’s apathy about food is a circular argument: The fact remains, Americans eat bad food and continue to put up with it, because it's cheaper. Case in point: American cheese. First off, it’s not really cheese. Second, it is mostly oil and salt. Third, it’s not really orange. It’s colored that way with some crap called anatto. Our contribution to the world of cheese is such an embarrassment, symbolic of the many cases in which American "improvement" really just kind of blew it!

Anyway, you can check out some footage of the King Corn guys here. (P.s., is anyone else kind of weirded out by Xeni Jardin's delivery on Boing Boing TV?)

Also, I just remembered someone telling me that in Mexico, thanks to NAFTA, it's cheaper to buy American corn than it is to buy corn produced in Mexico. The price of US corn has a direct influence on the price of tortillas. Loco!


Kino said...

i am feeling ya. i signed up for xeni's twitter feed, and i am beginning to think that was a big mistake. i also think that this comment I just made would be thought of as silly maybe only 5 years ago.

kevin said...

i've been trying to keep most (stressing most) hfcs out of my diet. its pretty hard. i can't wait until we trade with cuba again! think about all the cheap cane sugar! well, thats probably not going to happen.

have you tried boylans cane cola? i discovered it when we were on tour with la quiete. its amazing! and they have it at the 6th street bloomingfoods. its pretty expensive, 5 bucks for a 4 pack, but its way better than coca-cola. also, where do you get kosher coca-cola?

David said...

It is so perfect in my life when you talk food.

noxidgerg said...

Very well said! Come visit me in Tejas for a Dublin anytime!! Btw, I've noticed that Mexican coke in 500ml bottles (medio litro) contains corn syrup, while their smaller coke bottles still use sugar for sweetness. The medio litro's still seem to taste better, but maybe that's because they are still in the bottle?

eroos said...

I love your writing, especially about food! I stopped drinking sodas a few years ago and now whenever I have one (when there is no other choice) I feel like a sap, sort of drained, and my breath starts to stink after a while.. what is that? I've tried almost all the natural sweeteners, so far my fav is agave nectar. Tastes like honey but dissolves more easily. I'm glad that you stay on top of all the "good" junk food. Keep scoping things out for us! And thanks for the link for us myspacers.

rachel said...

HFCS is what I hate about margarita mix and what I love about Now and Laters.