Corn: from Candy to Cat Litter

—by Heidi Goar, HPC Member

I grew up in the 1970s; and, while it is uncommon to hear someone say it, I liked the decade. It was the period of the great 2nd Wave of Feminism and the adoption of “Ms.” as a title for women; it was the decade when foreign car imports made it possible to drive a really groovy, sporty, reliable Japanese car (I had a yellow Celica); it was the decade of the undoing of Richard Nixon. Plus, you got punk rock and great sitcoms.

One of the less attractive legacies of the 1970s is farm policy. Our current farm policy, one that subsidizes growers and is designed to keep commodity prices low, low, low, came out of the Nixon administration as a reaction to the high price of food in the early 70s (I recall boycotting beef and eating a lot of bad food then). This policy of subsidizing growers of all commodities, and eventual direct payments to farmers (about $19 billion per year today), had the effect of dumping too much food into the market. Couple this with excellent technology (we can grow 160 bushels of corn per acre today, vs. 20 in 1900!), and we have so much food, we are starting to look like part of a Monty Python skit. Today, we export a good deal of it, but we still have an amazing surplus. (For an excellent account of farm policy, its relationship to economics and politics, its history since the Roosevelt administration, and how it has affected corn use, see Michael Pollen’s latest book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

Now, originally, this article was supposed to be about corn in general. But the more I researched, the more I learned about how the overproduction of corn has pushed it into the food supply in really negative ways, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup. In this piece, I will tell you about corn as the source of high fructose corn syrup, as a food some can’t tolerate or have allergic reactions to. And, just so you don’t get too depressed, I’ll tell you about corn as the basis for all kinds of interesting new products.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

As a result of the aforementioned farm policy, beginning in the 1970s we had a lot of extra corn. Simultaneously, the Japanese perfected a way of removing the sugar from corn starch and, by using various enzymes from bacterium and fungus, created a sweetener that has the same sweetness as sucrose (sugar from cane or beets). This sweetener, created in chemical vats in 16 plants in the corn belt, defying all common sense, is much cheaper to produce than other sugars and can be altered to have a higher or lower fructose-to-glucose ratio. What’s really attractive is it has a great shelf life and it mixes nicely with anything, like beer and crackers. In fact, this fully unnatural creation has radically altered our collective diet:

In 1966, refined sugar, also known as sucrose, held the No. 1 slot, accounting for 86 percent of sweeteners used, according to the USDA. Today, sweeteners made from corn are the leader, racking up $4.5 billion in annual sales and accounting for 55 percent of the sweetener market. That switch largely reflects the steady growth of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which climbed from zero consumption in 1966 to 62.6 pounds per person in 2001.1

Okay, so we are drinking a ton of sugar, you say. If only that were the problem. The “sugar” we’re pouring down our gullets is not natural, it’s fake. Therefore, we cannot metabolize it. What’s happening is — and this is pretty serious, so don’t stop reading here — when you take in “natural” sugars (cane, beet, honey, etc.),

[the body] increases production of insulin by the pancreas, which enables sugar in the blood to be transported into cells, where it can be used for energy. It increases production of leptin, a hormone that helps regulate appetite and fat storage, and it suppresses production of another hormone made by the stomach, ghrelin, that helps regulate food intake. It has been theorized that when ghrelin levels drop, as they do after eating carbohydrates composed of glucose, hunger declines.2

But these things don’t happen when you take in HFCS; instead, oddly, the body reads it as a fat, explains Peter Havel, associate professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis. “Fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion. It doesn’t increase leptin production or suppress production of ghrelin. That suggests that consuming a lot of fructose, [is] like consuming too much fat…”.3 This stuff goes directly to the liver (other sugars go into the bloodstream to be processed into energy) and the effect is for the liver to produce triglycerides.

So, what you need to know is don’t eat this stuff. What is it in? Almost all soft drinks. A can of coke has the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of HFCS. It can be in condiments, jams and jellies, dozens of cereals (Kellogg’s figured prominently in my research), bacon, beer, “nutritional” bars, juice, soups, yogurt, and crackers; it’s very hard to avoid. Also, it can be labeled “natural”! Or even “organic”! So, you really have to think about it and do research. (A woman is creating her own list at this site, and WOW, there are a lot of mainstream products here.)

Corn and HFCS as allergens

Those with corn allergies, a somewhat common ailment, have a hard enough time avoiding corn. In the case of this sweetener, there is no way to know whether the “natural sweeteners” listed on the package are or are not based on corn starch. I should say there is almost nothing on “allergic” reactions to HFCS, and nothing that is empirically based. There are speculations that it can cause diarrhea, that it promotes diabetes, elevates cholesterol levels, robs the heart of important minerals, and inhibits the proper function of white blood cells. There is some discussion of HFCS playing a role in hyperactivity in children and behavior problems in both adults and children, but I couldn’t find any empirical data on this.4

Really cool new corn-based products

Finally, since we have so much corn, and since we have some pretty serious problems with petroleum petroleum-based products in our environment, there are many new ideas coming out of the corn belt in some really clever forms. For example, Goodyear is making a tire out of corn. Made from cornstarch from feed corn, this tire was introduced in Europe (interesting that it wasn’t first brought out here). It’s cheaper to make than a carbonbased tire, reduces fuel consumption because it has lower rolling resistance, weighs less than standard tires (about 20 pounds each), and comes in 17 sizes.5

One really cool company makes recyclable leaf and lawn bags, bin liners, kitchen bags, yard bags, industrial liners, cutlery, hot and cold cups, soup and salad containers, plates, straws and lids, and boxes— all from corn!6 Several companies are making de-icers and anti-icing fluids (this is very common, so corn must work nicely for it).7 There are several lines of cleaning supplies.8 I know I am excited about a product called “World’s Best Cat Litter” made from corn.9

So, it’s plain to see that Richard Nixon continues to shape our world in many ways. For those of us who love to hate him, it’s hard to give him credit for great cat litter or plastic forks that don’t disrupt the human hormone system. Instead, let’s continue to try to see the decade of my coming-of-age as giving us really great sitcom theme songs and some unequaled mood lighting.

Sources:

  1. "Sweet but Not So Innocent? High-Fructose Corn Syrup May Act More Like Fat Than Sugar in the Body". Sally Squires, The Washington Post, March 11, 2003. [Ed. This article is no longer available for free on the Post's web site. Read a summary here.]
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. "Baby and kid allerties: High-fructose corn syrup".
  5. "A-Maiz-ing Corn Tires... New Tire Made From Corn". Illinois Corn Growers Association. 03 December 2003.
  6. http://w5inter2.hivelocity.net/biocorp/products.htm
  7. Grain Processing Corporation
  8. Search results: "Cleaning Products". National Corn Growers Association web site.
  9. "World's Best Cat Litter".

For more information on high fructose corn syrup:

  • Linda Joyce Forristal, "The Murky World of High-Fructose Corn Syrup". The Weston A. Price Foundation. [Ed. The original citation is no longer accessible on the internet. This article is from the same web site is closely related.]
  • Kim Severson, "Sugar coated: We're drowning in high fructose corn syrup. Do the risks go beyond our waistline?" The San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 2004.