Category Archives: paranoia

Restaurants of New York: Stop Serving Assemblyman Felix Ortiz Food Prepared With Salt In Any Form

My sincere apologies to any lookalikes. Perhaps you could go moustache-less for a while? No salt for you!

Just over a week ago, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn named Felix Ortiz proposed a bill that would prohibit “the use of salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption” with penalties of “not more than one thousand dollars for each violation.” Presumably that wouldn’t prevent restaurants from providing salt for customers to add at their own discretion, but the bill offers no further details about what would and wouldn’t be considered a “violation” of the law or what is and isn’t included in the definition of “salt in any form”: see the full text here (hat tip: Reason).

Surely table salt (NaCl) would count, but what about any of the other edible ionic compounds that are chemically considered to be salts, like MSG (a sodium salt with the molecular formula C5H8NNaO4) or cream of tartar (a potassium acid salt with the formula KC4H5O6)? What about salty condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce, and ketchup? Would a restaurant that serves a ketchup-topped meatloaf have to forego the salt in the loaf mixture but still be able to slather ketchup on top (if so, why wouldn’t they just start adding ketchup to the mix as well, and finding ways to incorporate condensed soups and bouillon into dozens of other things that don’t already have them)? Or would they have to find or make their own salt-free ketchup—obviously a much larger burden on some kinds of restaurants? Even if it could make you live forever, would it be worth it?What about all the other prepared foods that already include salt and get used as ingredients in the preparation of other foods? Would Momofuku Milk Bar be banned from serving its famous compost cookies, which call for the addition of two “snack foods” like potato chips and salted pretzels?

House-baked, cured, and brined things would clearly suffer most from a law like this. It’s one thing to have to salt a soup or curry or burger at the table, but everything from deli pickles and salami to homemade cinnamon rolls and pie crusts would become completely unpalatable, if not impossible, without salt. When questioned by the Albany Times Union about salt-cured meats and pickles:

Ortiz didn’t have answers, saying repeatedly, "This all needs to be debated."

Of course, it’s probably not worth worrying about the ramifications of a bill that I can’t imagine has any chance of passing. Even the NYTimes has backed down from their initial, crazypants coverage of the recent NEJM study that claimed a small reduction in sodium consumption would save 44,000 lives a year—which is exactly the sort of statistic that gives legs to hysterical nutritional crusades (hysterical both in the funny-ha-ha sense and in the wandering-uterus-induced-insanity sense). The best example of that phenomenon is probably the equally batshit claim that obesity causes 300,000 deaths per year, but even anti-obesity crusaders have struggled to get far less aggressive measures passed, like the mandatory inclusion of calorie counts on fast food menus (which, incidentally, do not seem to reliably reduce how many calories people purchase).

Ortiz’s bill is actually so preposterous and so much more aggressive than the other recent proposals for reducing salt consumption, like the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s campaign to persuade food manufacturers to reduce the salt content of processed food by 40 percent over the next 10 years, that I initially thought it might be a sort of “straw man” bill designed by restaurateurs and/or salt-reform-skeptics to win people over by making salt reform seem even crazier than it actually is. But according to Ortiz, it was actually inspired by his father’s death:

He said he was prompted to introduce the bill because his father used salt excessively for many years, developed high blood pressure and had a heart attack (Albany Times Union).

Pity his father’s heart attack couldn’t be attributed to excessive exposure to creepy moustaches.

I've been trying to come up with equivalents and most of them end up being alcoholic: "As much as gin loves olives," "As much as tequila loves lime." There are so few other set-in-stone pairings. "As much as manchego loves quince"? "As much as rich gravies and stews love just a little bit of acid"? Ortiz’s salt-banning tribute to his dad is sort of like an inversion of the stories about filial love and salt that show up in traditional folklore of many different cultures from England to Central Europe to the Himalayan foothills. Many of them begin with a Lear-like scenario where a King or a nobleman in the unfortunate situation of having three daughters in a patriarchal society demands professions of love from each of them to help him decide how to divide his kingdom or estate between them (or, more accurately, their husbands). The elder daughters supply all the hyperbolic declarations of love you’d expect from adult children trying to protect their inheritance, although we’re meant to understand that they’re duplicitous opportunists who love their father’s money and power more than they love him. The youngest, who really loves him, says that she loves her father either as much as she loves salt or “as much as meat loves salt."

The King balks at being equated with a lowly condiment and banishes her for her seemingly insufficient devotion. Then, one of two things usually happens: either her departure magically causes salt to stop coming into the kingdom, their supplies begin to dwindle and people begin to sicken and die until the daughter returns and feeds her ailing father a nourishing, salty broth or bit of bread spread with butter and sprinkled with salt and he realizes that she was the one who loved him best of all OR someone arranges to have a feast prepared without salt, and as course after course comes out of the kitchen completely inedible, the King realizes his error and welcomes his daughter back. In Ortiz’s case, it’s the father who loves salt too much and the son who doesn’t realize its value.

The crux of the trope is that it’s only after people are deprived of salt that they realize how important it is to their happiness, and everyone gets to live happily ever after. In the English version called “Cap o’Rushes,” after the Lear bit, the story proceeds basically like the Grimm brothers’ “Allerleiruah” or “All-Kinds-of-Fur.” After banished from her father’s house, the daughter disguises herself in a cloak of rushes and becomes a servant in another nobleman’s home. He happens to have a son of marrying age so there are series of wife-seeking balls, Cinderella-style, and she’s the mysterious girl who steals his heart and disappears, though Cap o’Rushes manages to hang onto her shoes. Instead, the prince-figure gives her a ring, and when he falls into a deep depression because he doesn’t know how to find her, she prepares a stew or some gruel for him and slips the ring into it. Her identity is revealed and he proposes—and the interesting part is that the story doesn’t end there the way it normally would, not just in fairytales but in most English bildungsroman involving female protagonists until the 20th C. Boys become men and get jobs; girls become women and get married, The End. But in “Cap o’Rushes,” the resolution is about the salt as much as the marriage. The girl’s father is invited to the wedding, and she instructs the cooks to prepare her wedding feast without a grain of salt. By the last course, the man bursts into tears, finally realizing how much the daughter he sent away really loved him. The bride comes to his side, he recognizes her, she forgives him, and that’s what makes people happy ever after.

So here’s my proposal: if Felix Ortiz really wants restaurants to stop serving food prepared with salt “in any form,” I think that’s precisely what they should give him, but only him. I suppose, like the bill, what “in any form” means should be left up to the restaurants themselves, but I would encourage them to take a broad interpretation in case that’s how the court would chose to interpret it. Probably none of whatever the nibbles in the lower right corner are, either. Catering counts as restaurant-prepared food, too.So, no soy sauce or MSG, although I suppose we can let non-sodium salts like cream of tartar slide. But definitely no ham, bacon, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, corned beef, pickles, or kippered herring. No meats that have been brined, rubbed with salt, or dipped in a salted batter before cooking—let him taste what fried chicken and blackened fish are like without salt, what pulled pork is like without salt in the dry rub, and what roast chicken is like without any salt rubbed under the skin. No Chinese-style tofu (silken tofu, which is often made from soy milk coagulated with acid instead of salt could theoretically be okay, but be sure to check the label). No ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, salad dressing, or cheese unless they’re house-made and can be made without salt. The same goes for pasta, bread, pastries, and puddings. No salt in the patty of any burger or in eggs cooked any style. No packaged potato or corn chips, pretzels, crackers, or cookies. No soups made with bouillon, no canned tomatoes. He can have them at home, but not at any establishment that would be covered by the ban.

If he goes to a noodle bar for ramen, he should be served a bowl of unsalted noodles in a salt-less broth with unsalted toppings. If he orders a BLT, he can have salt-free bread with lettuce, tomato, and salt-less mayonnaise—if there’s no salt-free bread or mayonnaise available, just the lettuce and tomato. Let him try salting cheesecake, ice cream, caramels, cookies, and croissants to taste at the table with a salt shaker. I don’t expect him to burst into sobs in the manner of Cap o’Rushes father, but we’ll just see how long it takes before he reconsiders the wisdom of banishing salt from the kitchens of New York.

Things That Won’t Kill You Volume 3: MSG

From Flickr user "The Other Dan" taken in Corktown, Toronto 

Unlike juice, which has sort of a mixed reputation even among contemporary nutritionists and doctors, MSG has been consistently demonized. Most people can’t tell you why, they just know that it’s bad. If pressed, they might tell you that it’s "unnatural," that food manufacturers put it in processed foods to con people into eating "junk," that it’s basically salt (which I’ll address in a future post in this series), or that it gives some people headaches. Or they might just gesture to the fact that it’s common knowledge that MSG is basically some kind of poison—after all, why would Chinese restaurants be so eager to reassure you that they don’t use it if it were completely benign?

A recent commercial for Campbell’s New Select Harvest Light (which is the sort of self-satirizing product name I’d expect to find in David Foster Wallace’s fiction) suggests that even if people don’t know what MSG stands for, they know that it’s bad—potentially bad enough to deter people from buying a particular brand. Reading from a Progresso Light can, blonde #1 gets through "monosodium" but stumbles on "glutamate"—fortunately, the rainbow coalition includes an Asian woman who can translate that jargon into something we all understand: "That’s MSG."

Although people may still associate it primarily with Chinese restaurant cooking, the Campbell’s ad hints at its broader prevalence—MSG and other forms of glutamic acid are omnipresent in processed foods. They’re especially likely to be found in foods designed to taste like things that have a lot of naturally-occurring glutamate (or similar molecules like inosinate or guanylate). Stock, broth, and bouillon often contain MSG, as does anything cheese-flavored or ranch-flavored, like Doritos, which actually contain five different forms of glutamate. I taste it the most in instant ramen and Chex Mix, but even though I know what it tastes like on its own, I can’t always tell when something contains it or not. When used sparingly, it may not even be possible to discern because whether the glutamate in a dish comes from a mushroom or a salt, once it’s dissolved in liquid or on your tongue, it’s the exact same molecule:

from Wikipedia, showing up weirdly gray here

So even people who think it’s "bad" and expect to feel bad after eating it probably eat MSG, at least from time to time, without even knowing it, and without suffering any negative effects.

The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Myth

The first person to suspect that MSG might be unhealthy was a Chinese-American doctor named Ho Man Kwok, who complained in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 that he experienced numbness radiating from the back of his neck down his arms, weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He had never experienced those symptoms after eating at restaurants in China, and hypothesized that they were due to either an excess of alcohol, sodium, or MSG in American Chinese cooking. The MSG explanation caught on, with one of the response letters estimating that as many as 30% of Americans regularly suffered bad reactions to MSG. The NEJM ran the letters with the title "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," and by the next year, articles in Science and The New York Times were referring to the syndrome and its MSG etiology as verified facts:

"monosodium glutamate, which has been pinpointed as cause of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ " (NYT May 10, 1969 Page 33, Column 1)

Last year, the New York Times ran an article that attempted to set the record straight. They quoted the daughter of Chinese restaurant owners in New York City in the 1970s, who remembered the publicity around "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" as a "nightmare":

“Not because we used that much MSG — although of course we used some — but because it meant that Americans came into the restaurant with these suspicious, hostile feelings.”

From Flickr user Chinese restaurants were among the first in the U.S. to use MSG, which was mass-produced in Japan beginning in the early 20th Century after a scientist named Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamate from seaweed-based soup stocks. In the 1940s, it had become increasingly common in a number of processed foods and cooking styles around the world, including in the U.S. American soldiers who’d tasted Japanese army rations generally agreed that they tasted better, and the difference was widely attributed to MSG. As the war industries were refitted for peacetime manufacturing, including the greatly-expanded industrial food system, there was a greater need for flavor enhancers that would make food taste good even if it was canned or wrapped in plastic and transported long distances. MSG was great at that. It was also sold for home cooks to use under the brand name Accent, which is still available in the spice aisle of many grocery stores, and as a major component of Maggi sauce, a Swiss brand, and Goya Sazon seasoning blends, popular in the U.S. primarily with Latino/a and Caribbean immigrants.

It’s not entirely clear why Chinese restaurants were singled out, aside from the random chance of Kwok having weird feelings after eating at them. MSG was then, and still is, everywhere in American food. I suspect that it has something to do with a latent or repressed xenophobia. However, the success of Chinese restauranteurs and the fact that MSG didn’t really cause any physical symptoms were probably just as important—Cuban restaurants, where pork shoulder is often rubbed with a mixture of spices including MSG, weren’t nearly as common as Chinese restaurants. And if it had been called "chicken stock, Doritos, bologna, and Stove Top stuffing syndrome," that would have been far more difficult to accept for all the people who ate those things regularly without experiencing strange numbness and heart palpitations.

Which, of course, they generally don’t.

That’s Exactly what Forty Years of Research Has Found

No study has ever been able to find statistically significant correlations between the consumption of MSG and any of the symptoms associated with what was eventually re-named "MSG symptom complex" in 1995. According to a review article published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy in April 2009:

Descriptions of MSG-induced asthma, urticaria, angio-oedema, and rhinitis have prompted some to suggest that MSG should be an aetiologic consideration in patients presenting with these conditions…. Despite concerns raised by early reports, decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.

Even studies involving self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects failed to find a significant increase in the frequency of MSG-attributed symptoms. In one study, only 2 of 130 self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects responded to MSG in 4/4 treatments. Additionally, no one’s ever found any clues as to why MSG, which is just the isolated form of a naturally-occurring amino acid salt, would cause numbness or heart palpitations.

The Fat Rat Caveat

Peanut & Missy, from Flickr use "a soft world" 

A decade before Kwok’s letters on "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" were published, some scientists began doing research on the effects of MSG on mouse brains. In 1968, a neuroscientist named John Olney, also known for his work on aspartame, attempted to replicate earlier studies where mice were fed massive amounts of MSG via feeding tube. The most dramatic result wasn’t in the brain, where he was looking, but their bodies: the mice fed MSG became "obese" (which had a different medical definition in 1968 than it does now, but still referred to unusual fatness). Given that glutamate registers as "deliciousness," one might assume that the difference was that the MSG-fed rats just liked their food a lot more and ate past satiety, but the MSG was administered by feeding tube, so taste shouldn’t have had anything to do with it. Based on his work, manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using MSG in baby food.

Subsequent studies have repeated the finding: mice and rats fed large amounts of MSG gain weight, and it’s not entirely clear why. As far as I can tell, the amount of food they consume is generally controlled, although if they have free access to water, perhaps they’re drinking like crazy to make up for amounts of MSG as high as 10 g per day, out of 100 g food total. However, the mice in most of the studies are fed amounts of MSG that far exceed what a human even surviving on instant ramen and Doritos alone would consume. There’s no evidence that the amounts typically consumed as a flavoring do any damage to people, no matter how young. People all over the world eat MSG all the time, both in processed foods and home-cooked foods, seemingly without suffering any negative effects. The growing consensus among people who’ve looked at the research is that

"toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts" (Harold McGee On Food and Cooking 2004).

But it does seem like vast amounts of MSG can cause weight gain, sluggishness, and brain lesions in the retinal and hypothalamus regions. I’d advise against getting 10% of your daily intake of food from MSG.

 A Nutritional Yeast Connection?

from Flickr user A random suspicion I haven’t been able to confirm is that MSG might be similar in many ways to nutritional yeast, the worst-named ingredient in the world. Nutritional yeast, also known as "nootch," is primarily used by vegans and some vegetarians as a flavoring agent that adds a slightly cheesy, deeply savory flavor to things ranging from popcorn to sauces to seitan. It also makes a tasty breading for tofu.

According to Wikipedia, "Modern commercial MSG is produced by [bacterial] fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." Nutritional yeast, on the other hand, is "produced by culturing yeast with a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses, then harvesting, washing, drying it." Obviously whatever bacteria they use to ferment MSG results in a different product, but I wonder if they aren’t just different iterations of the same process. Ferment some sugar and molasses; in one case, extract the salt composed of sodium cations and glutamate anions and ditch the bacteria that do the fermenting; in the other, keep the yeast. Perhaps? If anyone knows more about the similarities or differences between the two, let me know.

From Flickr user "Fenchurch!"It definitely seems like MSG doesn’t have any of the nutritional benefits of nutritional yeast, which is full of vitamins and minerals and protein, but it would still be a delightful irony to discover that the maligned substance behind a million Chinese restaurant disclaimers is related or comparable in any way to a crunchy, natural food bulk bin staple.

I don’t use MSG often, largely because I prefer the yeasty flavor and nutritional benefits of nootch, but I don’t think homemade chex mix is nearly as good without a teaspoon or so of MSG, and a little bit can perk up lackluster soups and sauces. Most grocery stores still sell Accent, and increasingly carry Maggi sauce and Goya Sazon as well. You can also buy giant bags of it at Asian markets. If you use too much, it will make food excessively salty and overpower subtler flavors, so use a light hand and taste as you go.

More tips on how to use MSG and recipes in future entries.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 2: Fruit juice

This may seem like a strange thing to argue about, because the popular consensus still seems to be that juice is healthy. Jamba Juice markets itself as "the category-defining leader in healthy blended beverages, juices, and good-for-you snacks." They even use Jamba as an adjective to mean the opposite of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats (adding those things to juice ""just wouldn’t be Jamba"), which again, constructs the brand as healthy vs. the demon poisons that make people fat. Even if it’s foolish to go looking for truths in advertising, I don’t think Jamba Juice’s branding generally occurs to people as a massive irony or lie. Advocates of banning or restricting soda vending machines in schools often claim that the soda should be replaced with 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, and for many people, a glass of orange juice still represents "part of a nutritious breakfast" strongly with desirable nutrients like Vitamin C.

The Case Against Juice

But a number of health trends have begun cast suspicion on juice, especially the (impartial and incomplete) shift from primarily low-fat to primarily low-calorie and low-carb dieting in mainstream weight-loss culture, and the growing concern about the role sugars (especially fructose) play in personal and national obesity.

On the low-calorie front, people who believe that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is all about the basic algebra of calories-in vs. calories-out often end up axing all caloric beverages from their diets because they have a bad satiety-to-calorie ratio—I mean, obviously, right? Fruit juice is just fruit with some or all of the filling fiber removed. If the goal is maximum satiety on minimum calories, you’re better off eating whole fruit and drinking water or artificially sweetened beverages.

On the low-carb front, people who believe that what’s important is not how many calories you eat but what kind are also going to see juice (and sometimes most fruits and vegetables as well) as "unhealthy." It does seem to be true that diets high in carbohydrates drive up insulin levels, slowing metabolism and encouraging the body to store fat. And the overwhelming majority of the calories in most fruit juices are in the form of carbohydrates. Some green vegetable juices have protein content approaching 50% of the carbohydrate content, but that just makes it 75% bad rather than 100% bad, at least as true carbophobes are concerned.

And finally, there are some non-carbophobes who might avoid juice because they’re wary of sugar qua sugar, rather than sugar qua carbohydrate. The carbohydrates in fruit juice primarily take the form of fructose—wikipedia has a handy chart of the kinds of sugars in common plant foods. It doesn’t seem like there’s a true consensus yet about whether or not fructose is especially bad—despite recent studies linking fructose to obesity, even within the medical community, some people still advocate fructose as a "low glycemic" sugar that’s better for diabetics. It basically all comes down to whether you think the fact that fructose is digested in the liver and doesn’t trigger insulin production is a good thing or a bad thing. To link it to other sugar purveyors: pro-agave nectar people should also think that fruit juice is healthy and people who think hfcs is bad because they think it’s "high fructose" compared to other sugars are, well, a) wrong, but b) should also be advocating hfcs-sweetened sodas over fruit juices, which are even richer in sugar.

Personally, I think the evidence that fructose in large amounts causes equivalent blood sugar spikes to other sugar, increased "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides and signs of insulin resistance compared to glucose, and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease consumed in vast quantities suggests that it is certainly no better and possibly much worse for human health than glucose or sucrose. But "worse for human health" is relative, not absolute, and depends a lot on amount, kind, and context. 

What is health?

I’m generally convinced by the argument made by people like Gary Taubes that a diet composed of almost-exclusively proteins and fats might better represent the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet (as would cyclical feast and famine) and prevent carbohydrate-induced insulin resistance and fat storage. Jared Diamond makes some of the same points in Guns, Germs, and Steel. But the benefits of agriculture ultimately outweighed the costs—both for the species as a whole and measured by individual health metrics. In the immediate aftermath of the transition to agriculture, lifespans and average height decreased, but after a few thousand years, people depending on rice, corn, and wheat began to get healthier again

Does that mean carbohydrates are a healthier basis for a diet than proteins and fats? No. But it does mean that people can (and do) live very long lives uninterrupted by diet-based disease during which they are strong and energetic enough to physically do anything they want to do while eating a diet consisting substantially of carbohydrates. And I think that’s not a bad working definition of "healthy."

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a difference between ideas about nutritional "health" based on what might be theoretically optimal (for a very limited set of criteria), ideas about health based on potential pathology, and ideas about health based on actual health outcomes

Fear of juice is based on the first two—the idea that either people should eat as few carbohydrates as possible in pursuit of some sort of optimal diet, or that the fructose in juice will cause fatness (an aesthetic problem, not a medical problem) or disease and eventually death. Based on actual health outcomes, I think it would be almost impossible to make a case for the claim that drinking fruit juice—occasionally or regularly—is categorically unhealthy or the direct cause of disease or death.

In fact, things like fruit juice and hamburgers and Doritos, which can each be constructed as "unhealthy" are hard to entirely rule out of a "healthy diet." Even proponents of a soda tax generally agree that the only reason soda is a reasonable target is because it has no identified nutrients (what would happen if they fortified them, I wonder?).

The nutrient-density of juice is the primary reason for the long tradition of juice being regarded as a health food. If your concern is about essential vitamins and minerals (like many older models of nutrition, which people like Marion Nestle stand by) or consuming carbohydrates for fuel, which many physically active people still do, it’s hard to argue with the healthfulness of juice. I agree with Michael Pollan’s claim that popular beliefs about health often fall prey to "nutritionism," or the attempt to reduce food and nutrition to scientifically-identified nutrients and vitamins. At the same time, I don’t think you have to be brainwashed by the continued prevalence of nutritionism to believe there’s good evidence that many of the nutrients that scientists have identified are actually valuable or promote health and well-being (even if they’re not the only valuable aspects of food).

All juices are not created equal

The person who requested this entry was concerned specifically about fresh juices being portrayed as unhealthy, because they seem to have been smeared by concerns about packaged juices being just other source of dietary sugar.

While not all fruits lend themselves as readily to the production of refined sugars as sugar beets, some like apples, pears, and grapes can be turned into a nutrient-poor sweetener without most of the fruits’ color, flavor, or minerals and many fruit juices marketed as 100% natural fruit juices, like Juicy Juice, are sweetened with fruit juice that’s basically been turned into a sugar syrup. The nutritional distinction between those drinks and hfcs-sweetened soda is probably negligible regardless of whether your primary concern is calories, carbohydrates, sugar, or vitamins.

But the reason packaged juices often combined with fruit-based sugar is that many fruit juices aren’t actually that sweet on their own, or their sweetness is offset by the intensity of the flavor, as anyone who’s ever tried 100% cranberry or concord grape or cherry or blueberry juice knows. The fresh juices you can get at juice bars or make at home are calorie-dense, but they’re also extraordinarily nutrient dense and not likely to be consumed in quantity or alongside meals. They’re more often enjoyed on their own, like a snack, particularly after a workout—basically just like fruit. When you leave in some of the pulp, it becomes even less nutritionally distinct from fruit, and when you include vegetable juices or the juices of things like wheatgrass and ginger which are difficult or unpleasant to eat raw, you may be enjoying something that could, by some criteria, be healthier than a piece of fresh fruit.

Some juices even have pretty well-established medicinal uses. Cranberry juice, for example, can help prevent and cure urinary tract infections (that study notes the existence of "diet" cranberry juice, which I’d never heard of, but now that I have I wonder why there aren’t more "diet" juices sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than pear or grape juice-sugar. Not that those would necessarily be "healthy" by everyone’s standards, especially given the links between saccharin and cancer and suspicions about the healthfulness of aspartame and sucralose…)

Ultimately, while I don’t think even the occasional hfcs-sweetened Capri Sun is incompatible with a "healthy" diet and life, I think it’s unreasonable to conflate fresh juice without added sweeteners with juices sweetened with refined juice-sugar. I guess people trying to eat an "optimal" diet a la Gary Taubes should avoid all juices, fresh or no, but I don’t envy them their carbohydrate-less life, nor am I convinced that the total deprivation of many foods that have aesthetic, gustatory, social and/or cultural value is necessarily "healthy" or "optimal" either. For the vast majority of people who think fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, fruit juice and especially fresh fruit juice should also pass muster as a "healthy" choice especially when consumed in moderation, which I suspect fresh fruit juices usually are.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 1: High-fructose corn syrup

Confession: I not only avoided high-fructose corn syrup (hfcs) until about a year ago, I was actually skittish about fresh corn for a while after my first encounter with Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine (or it might have been this article). I stopped eating corn tortillas and frozen corn kernels and felt vaguely panicky about the possibility that I was consuming hfcs in condiments and sandwich bread when I ate out, even if it would have only been tiny amounts.

Now that I’m over it, I sometimes have a hard time remembering what was so scary about the idea that there was corn in everything I was eating, an idea that was obviously ludicrous anyway because I was a vegetarian who mostly ate food prepared at home from whole, fresh, non-corn ingredients. But looking back at the articles linked above, they are pretty ominous. Even though Pollan notes that a corn-based diet has been the norm in Mexico for centuries without any apparent ill effects, and the story he tells about the "cornification" of the American diet is too complex to be a nefarious plot designed to kill us all, it’s clear that he thinks the amount of corn Americans eat on average is a Bad Thing. Sure, it may rely on innocent accidents of nature, like the uniquely efficient way corn fixes carbon during photosynthesis and and the great distance corn pollen has to travel to reach the style, but it’s also reliant on much more insidious developments: synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, an arcane federal farm subsidy systems that turned corn into "a welfare queen," agribusiness giants with seed patents on genetically-modified strains, giant livestock feeding operations that use antibiotics to keep cows alive because eating corn makes them sick, and food manufacturers who profit from getting people to buy cheap food in ever-increasing quantities. Eating corn in any form may seem like a way of giving in to all of that or even supporting it.

So although I did a fair bit of eye-rolling when I read about people avoiding sweet corn at their farmer’s markets this summer or feeling "corn guilt" when they eat popcorn, it’s worth remembering that I was one of them not so long ago.

HFCS paranoia is not primarily an issue of ethical consumption

It’s not that many of those concerns are invalid—it’s true that most corn relies on a lot of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, that much of it is grown using genetically modified seeds with patents held by huge corporations that have been known to sue farmers when corn with their patented genes end up in their fields, that cows fed diets of corn get sick and are more susceptible to diseases like e coli that can threaten humans. But it’s also far from clear that refusing to eat ketchup containing high fructose corn syrup is an effective means of changing any of that or even primarily motivated by the desire to change those things.

Although people like Pollan have made a big deal about corn sweeteners being artificially cheap due to farm subsidies, the actual farm cost of hfcs in the food products we buy is so minimal that even if subsidies were eliminated entirely, it might not affect portion sizes or consumer demand at all. Even in soft drinks, which are by far the most demonized hfcs delivery system, hfcs represents just 3.5% of the total cost of manufacturing. The corn content, the only part actually affected by farm subsidies, is only 1.6 percent of the price (based on US Department of Commerce data). A comparison between the U.S., Australia, the UK, and France, all of which have different sugar policies but similar consumer prices, show no pattern in the relationships between how cheap sugar is, how much of it people eat, or how fat on average they are (which most people wrongly assume is a reliable measure of health outcomes, but I’ll tackle some other time).

Pollan’s formal case against hfcs relies primarily on arguments about price and prevalence, but that doesn’t really explain the kind of paranoia his books and articles have helped inspire about eating corn and/or hfcs. Not buying and eating something because it’s too cheap just isn’t the kind of consumer behavior that spreads the way hfcs-phobia has. Nor is this some sort of mass avoidance of all added or refined sugars, or brands like Snapple and Pepsi wouldn’t be running huge campaigns to advertise soft drinks containing only "natural sugar."

Instead, people have latched on to the implication, which isn’t supported by any data I can find, that hfcs is nutritionally worse than other sugars. The hfcs paranoia isn’t caused by the idea that hfcs might be unwisely or unfairly subsidized or that pesticides used to produce corn are poisoning waterways or anything related to feeding corn to cows. The fear is that hfcs might be some kind of demon poison that makes people fat.

The confusing part: "high fructose" isn’t actually high fructose

The idea that hfcs is worse than other sugars seems to be primarily reinforced by research about how fructose is metabolized. Just last April, an article about a study comparing drinks sweetened with fructose and  glucose in the New York Times began:

Some research has suggested that consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, used as a sweetener in a wide variety of foods, may increase the risk of obesity and heart disease. Now, a controlled and randomized study has found that drinks sweetened with fructose led to higher blood levels of L.D.L, or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides in overweight test subjects, while drinks sweetened with another sugar, glucose, did not.

Things like this get reported all the time. However, the very last sentence of the article quotes another biochemist:

The study did not test high-fructose corn syrup, he said, and judgments should not be made about it from the findings.

Not that that stopped the author from leading with the useless, ambiguous claim about a supposed link between hfcs and obesity, but surely this deserves a little more attention: yes, fructose alone seems to cause more insulin resistance and weight gain in both rats and people than glucose alone. But high fructose corn syrup is only "high fructose" relative to normal corn syrup, which is 100% glucose.

The kind of hfcs used in most food processing, including soft drinks, is hfcs-55, which is approximately 55% fructose and 45% glucose, or almost identical to sucrose, which is about 50/50. Another kind, hfcs-42, is used in the manufacture of some baked goods, and if fructose is really worse, that would make that kind of hfcs healthier than cane sugar. Indeed, studies comparing the consumption of hfcs to sucrose have shown no differences in metabolic responses (or energy or macronutrient intake) at all.

The argument that hfcs is somehow responsible for the obesity epidemic relies entirely on correlations between the rise of hfcs in food manufacturing in the 1980s and the rise in national rates of overweight/obesity (and the exponential rise in concern about fatness). Pollan’s case against hfcs amounts to a gut suspicion that:

It’s probably no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweeteners in the 1980’s marks the beginning of the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in this country.

Of course, this fails to account for the simultaneous increases in obesity in many other countries, perhaps most notably Australia, where obesity rates rival or even exceed those in the U.S., but sugar is the primary sweetener. It’s not that he’s totally wrong; it does seem probable that U.S. farm subsidies and the cheap price of highly-palatable, nutrient-poor, calorie-rich, primarily carbohydrate-based foods is one factor driving the relatively small increases in the average American’s weight since the 1970s. And the history of corn cultivation and agricultural policy has something to do with that. But there’s no reason to think that hfcs is uniquely responsible for the "obesity epidemic." After all, if it weren’t for subsidies and tariffs that keep the price of sugar artificially inflated, which are the result of a different set of biological, historical, and political contingencies, it would be just as cheap. 

Ultimately, hfcs is just another source of sugar, nutritionally no different from cane sugar, and way better than agave nectar if you’re concerned about fructose. It might be slightly worse than things like honey (esp. raw) and maple syrup (esp. grade B or lower) if you’re interested in vitamins and minerals. (This is all assuming the hfcs in question contains mercury, but that’s sort of another story altogether).

That doesn’t mean hfcs is  "natural," a word which has virtually no meaning when it comes to food labeling anyhow, but then, if "natural" is the alternative to "processed," no sweeteners are. Agave nectar must be filtered, hydrolyzed, re-filtered, and concentrated before it can be used as a sweetener. Refined cane sugar is purified with phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, and sometimes whitened using bone char which is why some vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat it.

The upshot is there’s no reason to believe that hfcs is any worse for you than sugar or much worse for you than any other sweeteners, and there’s certainly no reason to believe that a little bit here and there in a favorite condiment or even the occasional soda is going to hurt you.

Later in this series: I’ve gotten a request to weigh in on fruit juice, and will try to do that soon. And someday I’ll get around to msg, as promised before.