Sweet Surprise: The Truth about Michael Pollan’s Dilemma…and High Fructose Corn Syrup

“The omnivore’s predilection to eat a variety of species is tricked by [corn], and even the biological limit on his appetite is overcome.” -The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

I’m always overly incredulous of anything wildly popular, sometimes at my own cultural expense. I’ve missed the boat on many well meaning trends, most recently Lady Gaga. I’ve had a similar pretension toward Michael Pollan’s infamous Ominivore’s Dilemma, buying the book for my mom for mother’s day and yet refusing to pick it up myself. I’ve read so many books, seen so many movies about our failed food system that I figured the one that has the most mass appeal must be old, old news.

Unfortunately (well, not really as you’ll come to find out) I’ve had to break my fast for my many food classes this semester. Pollan is on two of my reading lists, and by the end of the semester I’ll be halfway through his repertoire. For tomorrow’s class I had to read through the first part of Pollan’s Dilemma. I begrudgingly opened the cover, but was very excited within the first pages of his introduction. He’s actually a beautiful writer and makes reading about something as mundane and as complicated as corn enjoyable. Pollan writes about corn and all of it’s implications with such depth that anyone who eats anything should read it. He covers everything from history to culture to politics to economics to science, and even good ol’ emotion, and this only in the first 119 pages! Ok, so now I get the hype. Like, I really get it.

The omnivore’s dilemma is gustatory. Because the omnivore eats all living and nonliving foodstuffs, the question of what to eat can be problematic and full of overwhelming possibility. However, Michael Pollan argues that this dilemma is somewhat limited to the option corn and non-corn. How can this be so? Through an investigation of our food system from farm to plate, he shows us that corn is at the heart so much of what we consume. From animal feed to sweeteners to the hard to pronounce ingredients in pretty much all supermarket goods, corn is lurking in one form or another.

Reading Pollan’s “Industrial Corn” chapter was nothing new. As someone who’s made it her mission to rile up family members over the boneless Tyson chicken breast on their dinner plates, Pollan’s words only reinforced my own. Yes, high fructose corn syrup is bad, bad, bad, and everywhere I look in my academic world I am comforted by other people’s consensus. But recently, while watching the Food Network, I was yanked out of my gastronomic bubble and plunged into the freezing water of reality by a commercial for the substance I’ve deemed anathema. In the commercial, a girl offers her boyfriend a bite of her ice pop. They’re having an ideal picnic: green grass, kids playing in the background, etc. The boyfriend refuses the ice pop because, “it has high fructose corn syrup in it.”

When she pushes him as to why it’s bad, he chokes up, unable to defend himself. She replies, “It has the same calories as sugar and it’s fine in moderation.” Right. However, it’s hard to moderate high fructose corn syrup consumption what it’s in so many kitchen cabinet staples. The only way to seriously moderate consumption is to read the ingredient list on everything you purchase. This may be second nature for the gastronomically obsessed, but for more Americans, it doesn’t even cross their minds as they reach for their box of Cheez It.

So what’s the problem? Is the Corn Refiners Association wrong in defending their product, their livelihood? No, they have every capititalist right to do so. What is wrong, however, is their linear mindset. Either they’ve missed a bug chunk of the conversation about their product or they’ve craftily decided to ignore it. The Corn Refiners Association, on their website devoted solely to high fructose corn syrup, sweetsurprise.com, defend their product from a purely metabolic standpoint. The tagline for their site is “The Facts About High Fructose Corn Syrup.” It’s true that the site is full of facts and quotes from FDA representatives, medical directors, etc., but the website fails to contextualize the facts.

As Pollan demonstrates, the implications of high fructose corn syrup are vast and not limited to nutrition. High fructose corn syrup is the product of a very flawed government subsidy on commodity corn, a program that encourages the industrial farmer to farm more and more at the expense of his financial well being (he receives only $0.04 of every dollar spent on HFCS), the environment, and the animals and humans that eat it. With every food containing high fructose corn syrup, there is probably a cow somewhere ingesting the remaining starch from that same bushel of corn. Cows were not meant to eat corn, they were meant to eat grass, but they pick up some of the non-monetary cost of our over-production of corn. Some more of the cost is picked up by the environment; the movement of corn on the processing side is all made possible by fossil fuels.

I return to sweetsurprise.com. Sure the Corn Refiners Association can argue all they want about the scientific studies, USDA approvals, and calorie contents. What they cannot argue is the implications of high fructose corn syrup that move beyond metabolic functions and into the cognitive, that food is not just about calories.

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