Corn is making us fat

Photo: Toro

Corn is popping up in the most unlikely places. It's in our soft drinks and juices, hamburgers and chicken, cookies and cakes, breads and crackers, yogurt and granola bars, pizza and fast foods -- and it's making us fat.

Too much of a bad thing
Most of our processed foods are being sweetened with the cheap and abundant high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). When it was first introduced in the early 1970s, we consumed about 450 grams (one pound) per year. Today we eat almost 27 kilos (60 pounds) per person per year.


Scientists like Professor George Bray have been studying the effects of HFCS for many years. As former executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, and a former chair of the International Obesity Task Force, Bray had first hand experience with the growing epidemic and wrote about his findings in The Handbook of Obesity.

"Fructose is absorbed differently. It doesn't register in the body metabolically the same way that glucose does. It is a carbohydrate fat equivalent – that's how I look at it – and the rise in high fructose corn syrup is on top of the obesity epidemic," said Bray.

Handled differently
When we start digesting glucose, our body reacts by increasing leptin (a hormone controlling appetite and fat storage) and decreasing ghrelin (the hormone reducing hunger pangs). The glucose is then stored as energy.

But with HFCS the opposite happens. Ghrelin levels are not suppressed and leptin is not increased so we are left feeling not quite satisfied and hungry soon after eating. It gets into our cells without triggering an insulin response, thereby confusing our body into handling it like any other fat and storing in as excessive flab. The University of Minnesota also found a diet high in fructose elevates triglyceride levels, long associated with obesity and heart disease

Subsidized corn
We have so much corn because it's a heavily subsidized crop. It's become a cheap food source so all our our animals, including salmon, are fed a steady diet of corn. Since there's plenty leftover (that happens when you are producing 10 million bushels per year) its also turned into by-products like HFSC, which according to Michael Pollan has become the building block of the "fast-food nation."

King Corn
In 2004, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis started growing a single acre of corn and documented their investigation in their film King Corn. They started off injecting ammonia fertilizer into the 31,000 genetically modified seeds they planted (which took around 18 minutes). While the corn grew, they visited where corn ends up and were disturbed by the results.

Whether it was in a diabetes-plagued neighbourhood where soda was the favoured beverage or in the overcrowded feedlots where bloated cows were waiting to be slaughtered, corn didn't seem to be contributing to a healthy life. In fact, when Ian and Curt got their hair tested they discovered they were 58 percent corn-based.

Buyer beware
The first step to reducing our HFCS intake and losing weight is to find cut out those foods laced with it.

Approach labels with caution though. The food industry has not been completely forthright and sometimes labels HFCS simply as fructose. Cadbury Schweppes recently agreed to change the label on its 'natural' HFCS-containing 7UP drink and Kraft announced it would abandon "all natural" claims on Capri Sun Juice. Both companies were faced with a lawsuit for deceptive advertising, filed by consumer activists Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The Corn Refiners Association has also backed down after the FDA stated that HFCS could never be considered a natural ingredient.

The Accidental Hedonist has a list of foods containing HFCS while Stop HFCS has a list of companies who have stopped using it.

Buying products from companies, a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables along with grain-fed and organic meat bought from a reliable, local source is the best way to avoid the perils of HFCS.