Friday, March 01, 2013

Chocolate frosted sugar bombs

That's one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. There is nothing like waking up to a sickeningly sweet breakfast. Although processed food industry has taken it to a whole new level, I do remember some really happy summer vacations, which included a sickening overdose of sugar. We used to eat fresh "cream rolls" with tea first thing in the morning, at lunch we would have a scary amount of Indian (or Maharashtrian?) version of mango jam (मुरंबा). And I cannot hide my regrets over growing up, when I begin to describe the procedure we had established for eating a bourbon biscuit . It had to be opened first and then the chocolate cream had to be eaten. The left over cookie was usually dunked in extra sweet tea. In summers, we had special clothes to eat mangoes. We were locked out with our mangoes on the balcony to avoid paw prints on the walls. There was sugar available at every meal. No ration. No guilt. 

BUT, all the sugar we consumed was "obvious sugar". There was other food and then there was sugar. It was easy to go off sugar if one wished to do so (who would ever have such a wish!). However, the processed food we consume now comes with a lot of latent sugar.  The food industry in the United States is driven by a wonder sugar -- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS has made its way into almost every kind of cheap processed food (burger buns, yoghurts, nutri bars, breakfast cereals, ketchup, pizza, even roasted peanuts!). Proponents of the use of HFCS argue that it is just as bad as eating cane sugar (which by the way is not true). However, the problem arises when HFCS is used in foods that usually don't need sugar. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, this omnipresence of HFCS is a result of persistent lobbying by the corn industry of the United States. Corn growing is heavily subsidized. And the biggest beneficiaries of these subsidies are not just the multinationals that are directly involved in the use of corn but also the leading soda and fast food corporations. Increasing the amount of sugar in any food adds to its, for the lack of a better word, "addiction quotient". The insidious sugar packets that are delivered to us through ketchup and burger buns actually help in getting us hooked on. The manufacturing costs of cane sugar would not accommodate such rampant use of cane sugar in foods such as breads and yoghurts. Hence HFCS just adds an excess amount of sugar to an everyday on-the-run diet. 

This  is an enlightening piece about HFCS. It is often argued that the human body processes HFCS in a process identical to cane sugar. But it may not be true. HFCS consists of unbound fructose and glucose (in a ratio of 55:45), while cane sugar or sucrose consists of bound fructose and glucose (in a 50:50 ratio). Unbound sugars are absorbed rapidly by the body. Moreover, fructose is absorbed more rapidly than glucose, and is converted to fat by the liver. However, it has not been rigorously studied whether these biochemical differences would lead to increased risk of liver and pancreatic diseases. So essentially, the food industry is using its consumers as an experiment. 

Going beyond the details of sucrose Vs HFCS (interesting slide show there), it is not the kind of sugar that poses the bigger risk. It is the amount of sugar, and more importantly the amount of latent sugar, which is a bigger concern. No matter which culture/nation you come from, in order to eat healthy, you have to be in a position to control what you eat. And being able to cook your own food is the best way to control what you eat. 

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