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The real price of today's cheap food



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Pre-packaged convenience foods are becoming what forms the backbone of the typical North American meal. Pre-cooked roasts complete with gravy and ready for the microwave compete with frozen pizzas and casseroles. Soda pop and sports drinks, sauces and dressings, cereals and crackers, cookies and ice cream... All these cleverly marketed products of food science vie for our attention with claims of "trans fat free" or "low carb" or whatever the current health trend may be. What are they made of and where do they come from? What are all those obscure ingredients listed on the back and how in the world do we produce them so cheaply?

To a large extent, the answer to all of these questions lies in a field of genetically modified corn. Corn is what sweetens our beverages, thickens our sauces, fattens our beef and prolongs the shelf life of countless food products. Corn has, in fact, largely taken over the role that once belonged solely to cane sugar. Sports drinks and ice cream, bread and yogurt, pancake syrup and fruit spreads, are all sweetened with glucose-fructose, a derivative of the corn plant. Labeled in the U.S. as high fructose corn syrup, this is a sweetener with a distinctly bad reputation when it comes to our health. Yet no one seems to have noticed that it has quietly infiltrated our food supply, taking over a role that once belonged to cane sugar.

Glucose-fructose is produced by milling corn to produce corn starch and then processing the starch to make glucose, or corn syrup. An enzyme is then added to the resulting product that converts the glucose into fructose, another form of sugar. While sucrose, or table sugar, is equal parts glucose and fructose bound together, the sweetener labeled as glucose-fructose has a higher ratio of fructose.

So what? Sounds harmless, right? Well, all those unbound fructose molecules head straight to the liver to be metabolized where they are immediately converted into fat that heads straight for the bloodstream. This may be relatively harmless in small doses, but the trouble is glucose-fructose has insinuated its way into almost every processed food that we eat. And on the whole, we eat a lot! This stuff is a highly processed product of food science that has only been around since the 1970s. Our bodies don't really know how to process it. In fact, a study conducted at Princeton University showed that rats who were fed glucose-fructose along with their regular diets had more circulating triglycerides, or fats, in their blood than those fed plain old table sugar. Could this perhaps be one of the reasons that we North Americans are getting rather large?

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