I loved Melanie Warner’s smart article on High Fructose Corn Syrup in today’s NYTimes business section not only because it explains a subject that is not very well understood by the public (what HFCS is and how it’s derived from corn), and suggests that HFCS, which has for several years been demonized as a cause of this country’s obesity crisis (and has recently obsessed the beloved megnut), is no worse for you than regular table sugar, which can be derived from sugar cane or beets. What the article points up for me is how badly we base our eating decisions, we who are trying to eat as well as we can.
The article leads with a woman-on-the-street comment—a Rhode Islander says she avoids foods containing HFCS because it’s been linked to obesity. But that’s as far as she goes. We have to stop to think if this makes sense, and if it does, why?
From a physical standpoint, I can’t imagine HFCS is worse than sugar for its being processed (enzymes break carbohydrates down into glucose then into fructose). It’s not bad for you pre se. But does that mean you should embrace it?
No: 1) If you’re eating something with HFCS this means likely that it’s got a lot of other crap in it that’s worse. 2) The cheapness of it has allowed soft drink companies, for instance, to produce bigger quantities of it, which we, like lab rats, consume in whatever quantities they give it to us in. 3) It perpetuates our reliance on agribusiness corn, which is just a couple steps away from perpetuating our reliance on oil. (As Pollan shows in his excellent book, Omnivore’s Dilemma—I’m halfway through, and so far it’s his best book.) These are the kinds of things we must know in order to make decent decisions about what we consume and why.
Same with nitrites. People avoid them without knowing why, having only some vague notion that because it sounds like a harmful chemical additive it must be. The notion that nitrites are bad for you is underscored by bacon companies who have introduced non-nitrite bacon (both commercial companies and good companies such as Niman). In reporting a story on bacon and corned beef for The NYTimes last fall, I asked a food scientist if there were something I was missing here. He said, "No, it’s a marketing device." I wonder if the companies themselves even know why they’re doing it. Perhaps even they think they’re doing the consumer a great service.
The fact is nitrite, which I write about in Charcuterie, are naturally occurring chemicals (they’re in spinach and celery and other vegetables, for instance), and aren’t apparently harmful in and of themselves. They have been shown in certain situations (under very high heat for example) to produce nitrosamines which have been shown to cause cancer. So some caution is advisable. But there’s little evidence that shows nitrites (usually in the form of sodium nitrite, a curing salt used in bacon and sausages and corned beef) are harmful in the quantities that we eat them today. (For a definitive statement on cautions and facts, see Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.) But how many know this?
I was grilling sausages and bacon yesterday at one of our growers markets here in Cleveland and a woman asked if the stuff on the grill had nitrites. I said the bacon did but the sausage didn’t. I tried to explain to her what I knew about nitrites, but she wrinkled her nose. Though she couldn’t explain why she thought it prudent to avoid nitrite, she wasn’t buying what I had to say. And I wasn’t even selling the bacon or wursts.
Even the most fundamental aspects of eating are misuderstood, and yet are acted upon. We think eating fat makes us fat. It doesn’t—eating more calories than we expend makes us fat. Eating cholesterol doesn’t raise our cholesterol; the food cholesterol in eggs doesn’t translate into blood cholesertol, but saturated animal fats can. This is the information that’s important.
When you avoid eating something, I hope you know why you are avoiding it. As a rule I avoid eating chemically processed food (though I have a weakness for Pringles); I avoid eating anything that comes out of a box or a cellophane or waxed-paper bag. But I adore good processed food, preferably food I’ve precessed myself, like pork belly, either cured into bacon, or poached in fat. That’s the best kind of processed food there is and should be consumed with gusto.