Agribusiness’s Lab Rats

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.

14 thoughts on “Agribusiness’s Lab Rats

  1. Amen sister! I wrote about this almost three years ago. According to an article in the NYT circa 2003, nitrites might actually be good for you, they open blood vessels and improve blood flow. There is even some research happening to develop therapies using nitrites. But just try telling it to someone shopping the meat counter and they look at you like you’re clearly insane.

  2. The only reason I can see for conscientiiously avoiding nitrites is an allergy. Isn’t that what people with wine allergies are really allergic to? My husband recently purchased some nitrite-free hot dogs, and while they tasted fine, they were an unappetizing gray-brown color when cooked. Eyes closed, however, they could have been Hebrew Nationals.
    As for HFCS, I haven’t read the article yet, but my problem with it stems from the use of it in so-called “light” products. It mimics the mouthfeel of oil in salad dressings and is usually the first ingredient on the label. Consumers are afraid of fats but are instead packing in the empty calories from a different source. Whereas someone would normally be satisifed by one fat-filled Twinkie, they feel free to eat an entire box of Snackwells because they presume it’s less-damaging.

  3. i hadn’t heard or read anything about nitrites being good for you in some instances, but it wouldn’t surprise me, thanks for tnoting this.
    and i love that name, snackwells, amazing that people fall for it. Hey, let’s call our heavily processed mediocre crap “Snackwell”—they’ll never guess!

  4. Very informative post; I realized I had not through all my food biases. Can you explain why pregnant women are advised against comsuming nitrites?

  5. some studies have shown a correlation between eating cured meats and brain tumors and leukemia in children who eat cured meats or born to mothers who ate cured meats during pregnancy. other studies have found no correlation. some have asked why would hotdogs be bad for kids when spinach and other green leafy vegetables, which contain nitrite, aren’t bad for you? good question–it’s easy for us to imagine that hotdogs are bad but not so easy to imagine that spinach is. how valuable is conventional wisdom? furthermore, hotdogs are eaten by so many kids, one would think, if dogs did cause brain tumors, we’d see a population of children beseiged by brain tumors, but we don’t. studies have suggested that when when combined in a diet with vitamin C the vitamin may prevent the creation of amines and therefore nullifies the harmful effects nitrites that form cancer-causing nitrosamines in the stomach, if that does indeed happen in the stomach.
    So: more study is warrented. And caution and common sense are not harmful. If you’re pregnant, it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid gorging on ham and hot dogs and salumi during those nine months…
    And feed your kids a balanced diet of the kinds of foods humans have been eating for thousands of years…

  6. I’m not pregnant (yet), but when I am you better believe I WILL be gorging on some of that Niman Ranch nitrite-free bacon!
    Sometimes it’s hard to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to what pregnant women are told to do and not to do. It seems like there’s a whole industry that exploits those fears.

  7. A lack of scientific literacy and access to the literature, really compunds the problem of misconceptions about food. In the case of nitrites, for those with access to a good university library, the most recent review of the 10 human epidemiological studies on the subject of nitrates and pregnancy, you should try and get hold of this article
    For example, the review discusses a 1996 article study that showed a correlation with childhood brain tumor for children who’s mothers ate meat processed with sodium nitrate twice a day! Aside from problems with experimental design, like asking people to recall what they ate during pregnancy some time (up to 19 years) after the fact and completely overlooking non-dietary exposures like tobacco, cosmetics, drugs and agricultural chemicals; the incidence of childhood tumors is only 24-27 cases per million per year, so the evidence to suggest that you might increase the risk of brain turmors developing in the fetus during pregnancy by eating some bacon is hardly compelling.

  8. It is conceivable to me that HFCS might upset the body’s insulin regulation system. Fructose metabolism follows different pathways depending on whether glucose is present in sufficient quantities, because they compete for some enzymes.
    HFCS in its most common formulation contains slightly more fructose than does sucrose (55% vs. 50%), the other 45% is not necessarily glucose, and this might be enough of a difference to cause problems given the way that fructose and glucose metabolisms interact.
    Especially at high quantities (say, a 42-oz soda), a 5% difference in fructose level might not sound like a lot, but it could be a significant difference. Do that every day, three meals a day, and I’d be not at all surprised to find this causing problems.
    While it’s true that there isn’t any scientific basis for saying that it’s bad, it’s also dangerous to assume it’s okay and then find out 20 years later that it isn’t.
    Personally, I also tend to avoid it because it tastes bad (or at least, many things made with it taste bad). I can’t stand the nasty cloying oversweetness.

  9. I like that 4th paragraph down. The one where you itemize why foods containing HFCS might not be a good choice. It especially irks me how businesses finds ways to plump their bottom line that have nothing to do with good nutrition, but are marketed as such.

  10. I enjoyed this post, but, at the end, you list several classes of food that you avoid but you don’t provide any reason for avoiding them. Wouldn’t it be consistent with the point of your article for you to explain why you find it prudent to avoid these foods?
    I’m particularly curious why you avoid foods that come in boxes.

  11. Jay: I avoid food packaged in boxes and cellophane because as a rule these are the foods that are most worked over and added to, they’re the product of agribusiness, about which i have a deep distrust, and they don’t taste as good. Pollan’s rule is he doesn’t eat processed food that has more than five ingredients or something like that. That’s a better rule but the no box or packages is easier. Why someone who doesn’t like to cook would microwave a lean cuisine rather than buy a good hunk of cheese a great baguette, and eat it with a plain salad of greens and a bottle of zinfandel is beyond me.

  12. I think the problem with the NYTimes article is it is simply misleading. There is a lot of valuable information in the text of the article, but the title is simply “spin.” We are led to believe that HFCS gets a bad rap, but all that the experts can say is “its probably no worse than sugar.” We do learn HFCS is the result of chemical reactions produced by extensive mechanical processes. Do you regard that as chemically processed? It certainly shouldn’t pass as “all-natural.” I think it is important to note that Warner gets it wrong when she says that HFCS is a “more cheaply produced sweetener.” It may be cheaper for Cargill to buy the corn, thus Coca-cola to buy the HFCS, but it is tax payer dollars that are funding these multi-million dollar profits in the form of government farm policies. I think Michael Pollan does a great job linking our overconsumption of soft drinks and the many other HFCS products these completely illogical farm policies, which he sums up as this: “…instead of supporting farmers, during the Nixon administration the government began supporting corn at the expense of the farmers.” Which led to the “supersize” solution of what to do with the every-growing mountain of corn.

  13. I read everyone’s comments as I am searching for answers. I do know from experience that when I eat certain foods such as “Pringles” flavoured potato chips, chinese foods and processed meats for example that I retain fluid which is visible. I don’t need a doctor to know something in our food is triggering this. I get such swelling when I lay down at night that I’ll wake up with tingling sensations in my head, arms and legs gone numb that feel like a stroke is coming on. I have had breathing difficulties where my throat will close off. I know when this has happened that I’ve made poor choices in the food I’ve eaten that day. I understand that msg cannot be tested for in your body so that perhaps is why it is still on the market. I agree with Mr. Ruhlman that nature naturally puts certain amounts of natural chemicals in our foods. I do feel strongly that our food manufacturers should be more closely monitored on the levels of enhancements they make. I look down the street at how many kids have asthma and are terribly overweight. Something is wrong. I eat healthy and fall off the wagon on occasion but I will share with you that when I went to Cuba this last spring that I had never felt so good. I expect it is because they do not have the pesticides and additives in their foods. I guess my question is, “How do we get companies as well as government to make better choices on food production without compromising the profits everyone is benefiting from?” It’s all about money!

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