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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What is food?

Image: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite

In a Princeton University study male rats were given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the stuff produced at Casco Inc. in London, Ontario,  in addition to their standard diet of rat chow. The animals gained much more weight than male rats given water sweetened with table sugar in place of the HFCS. The concentration of sugar was the same as in some soft drinks; The HFCS solution was only half as concentrated as found in most sodas.
"Sugar is sugar is sugar," claims Paul Choquette. I think it is understandable that Choquette, as plant manager of the Casco plant in London, Ontario, believes this myth. But, according to many researchers, Choquette is wrong.

Evidence is mounting that fructose, in the large quantities we consume today, is endangering our health. The body easily stores glucose as glycogen, while excess fructose is more likely to be turned into fat by the liver. Fatty liver is the most common chronic liver disease in the United States, affecting 10-20 percent of Americans. (Source: Yale Scientific.)

Casco makes what is commonly known as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). At least, that is how it is identified in the ingredient lists found on food products sold in the United States. In Canada and Great Britain the sweetener is identified as sugar/glucose-fructose.  This change in name has fooled many in Canada into believing their Canadian bottled soft drinks are free of HFCS sweetener; They're not.

In the States HFCS cannot be called corn sugar. The Corn Refiners Association would like to market the corn syrup sweetener as a natural ingredient made from corn. To this end the association petitioned the FDA in the States to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to corn sugar. The FDA said, "No."

As pointed out earlier, the Canadian government has taken a different approach. Agriculture Canada calls glucose/fructose a generic term for high fructose corn syrup and accepts that HFCS is commonly referred to as "corn sugar" in Canada.

Whether you call the syrup HFCS or glucose-fructose, it is a sweetener that even Choquette admitted gets a "bad rap." But, it's only when consumed in large quantities that issues arise, he told the paper.

He's right there. Corn sugar in large quantities is bad for us. Of course, all sugars consumed in large amounts are bad for us, but HFCS carries a little extra punch, which many believe comes from the heavier fructose load often carried by the highly processed sweetener.

According to Dr. Varman Samuel, Assistant Professor of Endocrinology at Yale University, folk today are simply consuming too much sugar: Period. The fact that most of that sugar happens to come from the widely used sweetener, HFCS, is not really the point.

So, is the Casco product off the hook? Is their sweetener mostly a less expensive replacement for the the more expensive cane or sugar beet product? This is a possibility but the research is ongoing and no one wants to blacken the name of an industry without cause.

And so controversy continues to swirl around the Casco corn sugar sweetener. Duke University Medical Center has reported that fructose containing beverages may be harmful to the liver. Manal Abdelmalek, associate professor of medicine at Duke said:

"Our findings suggest that we may need to go back to healthier diets that are more holistic. Fructose, which is predominately consumed in soft-drinks and processed foods, may not be as benign as we previously thought."

What this means to me is that the food industry in London, Ontario may be going in the wrong direction. On reading the recent stories in The London Free Press, I couldn't help but notice many of the biggest players in the food industry in London are marketing calorie-laden, highly processed foodstuffs like high-fructose corn syrup (Casco), beer (Labatt) and Chicken McNuggets (Cargill).

I also found it interesting that many of the big food producers highlighted in the paper are foreign owned. Many of our big players started out as Canadian companies but were taken over by foreign interests. History tells us that foreign-owned plants can be quickly be closed for a multitude of reasons. Think Electro-Motive Diesel closed by Caterpillar. Or the now deserted Ford assembly plant on the southern edge of London. Or the Westinghouse transformer plant — gone but not forgotten. We have the PCBs to remember the multinational by.  The list goes on and on and on.

What I also find interesting is what we don't have in London, or the surrounding area or even in Ontario: canners. Canned peaches now come from South Africa, canned corn and peas from the States, fruit cocktail from China. Sun Capital Partners, a private equity firm, closed  CanGro Foods in St. Davids in 2008, the last remaining fruit canning plant in all of North America east of the Rockies. The plant had been in operation for more than 100 years. The same year Sun Capital was involved in the closing of the CanGro Foods canning plant in Exeter, Ontario.

There are reasons orchards in London, Ontario, are abandoned. The market for Ontario fruit has collapsed.

The London Free Press has finally stumbled upon an interesting angle as its series examining London, Ontario goes on and on, week after week, month after month. The paper has discovered where London is located on a map of Canada. It's smack in the middle of some of the best farmland in the country.

The local paper figures London should be putting more effort into attracting businesses with strong connections to agriculture. The paper is so eager to showcase successful "food" businesses that it hasn't stopped to consider what is being produced and for whom and by whom.

I'd like to leave you with this written by Mark Bittman for The New York Times on the question: What is food?

Bittman's dictionary calls it "any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth." That doesn’t help so much unless you define nutritious. Nutritious food, it says here, "provides those substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition."

According to Bittman, sugar-sweetened beverages don’t meet this description any more than do beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots. They promote growth all right — in precisely the wrong way — and they do the opposite of promoting health and good condition. They are not food.

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