Joe Scarborough, intermittently conservative host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, was adamant. When co-host Mika Brzezinski became upset that he was celebrating the failure of NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recent “soda ban” on his show, he lit into her:
I drank Coca-Cola, soft drinks, I ate Cap’n Crunch, Trix, and I ran it all off by 10 in the morning. Don’t say this stuff is killing us. It’s the lack of activity combined with people sitting on the couch instead of going out and playing all day, they’re playing video games on the couch… Let me tell you, i drank so much coke growing up… It’s not the poison. Coca-Cola is not the poison and these other soft drinks aren’t the poison, it’s the lack of activity. We’ve all changed, our kids have changed. Much better to get your kids up off the couch than painting Coca-Cola and other soft drinks as what they’re not. They’re not the poison.
To his credit, he did go on to respond to her “poison” claims against Big Sugar by insisting we look at America’s obesity crisis “holistically.” And in that, he’s quite correct — there are a number of factors, including sedentary lifestyles, that go into the formation of that epidemic. On the other hand, Mika was also right about the food we eat; while you might think Bloomberg’s attempted ban on restaurants serving more than 16 ounces of soda in one glass was Draconian, his proposal to manage a public health crisis did drag the debate into the open. And in any variety, especially eaten in the quantities Americans consume, processed sugar can indeed be considered toxic. It’s not something you can just “run off.”
High Fructose Corn Syrup is everybody’s favorite black-hat villain of late, but demonizing it may not only be unfair but beside the point. There’s no scientific smoking gun linking HFCS, as opposed to the regular processed sugar Joe drank so much of as a kid, to increased diabetes or heart disease. The corn lobby claims its process of synthesizing fructose and sucrose and bonding them together matches the same metabolic process of regular sugar, in the same quantities, and though the circumstantial evidence looks bad, no one’s been able to prove them wrong. Despite its name, High Fructose Corn Syrup (which the industry recently lobbied to change to simply “corn sugar,” to no avail) isn’t much higher in fructose than regular table sugar — or so claims the industry. The “high” was put there to distinguish it from earlier processed sugars which were mostly glucose. And since Big Sugar claims the balance between fructose and sucrose is essentially the same in HFCS as in table sugar, Joe must have a point, right?
For one thing, the amount of Coke products Scarborough consumed as a kid is nothing compared to what’s consumed by today’s children. For decades, the standard Coke bottle size was a whopping 6 1/2 ounces. In 1955, eight years before Joe was born, Coke responded to Pepsi’s advance on their market share by creating 9 and 12 ounce sizes, as well as a 26 ounce “family size,” made of glass, that was the forerunner of today’s plastic 2 liter bottle. Joe probably had 6 1/2, 10, or 12 ounces of soft drink at a time, but today’s kids have a standard bottle that clocks in at a big 20 ounces, and that 26 ounce family size has since morphed into a 67 ounce, or two-liter, bottle. The fridge pack, which has begun to replace the 2 liter with consumers, is twice as large as the standard six-pack Joe grew up with and, at 144 ounces, more than five times the size of the traditional “family size” bottle he grew up with. And what about the fountain drinks, which weren’t touched by the ban? In Joe’s day, their glasses ran 8 to 12 ounces. As you already know, the 7-11 “Big Gulp,” which became the industry standard for largeness when it was instituted during Joe’s 17th year, ranged from 20 to 64 ounces. For one person.
Add to this the inroads sodas have made into schools: during Joe’s childhood, only high schools had them, and then only in vending machines. By 2008, all 50 states had made Coke and similar products available in elementary and secondary schools, and not just in vending machines but in their lunch lines as well. When 19 states banned sugary sodas from lunch lines the following year, kids raised on sugar bought them anyway — from those vending machines, and, when those were banned, from places outside school. Not a dent was made in consumption.
These changes happened so gradually no one noticed them. But another, even more sinister change came about through the food industry’s adoption of High Fructose Corn Syrup. Even assuming it’s as safe as table sugar, it’s still a big factor in the obesity epidemic, and that’s because, unlike sugar, it’s used in a long line of foods. Believe it or not, many of these foods don’t use traditional sugar, and some of them have absolutely nothing to do with sweetness. Here’s a partial list:
Mac and cheese
Bread (white or whole wheat)
…and of course sodas, snacks, and candy, not to mention the non-cola portion of your fast food meals. All of these things have also grown in size, much like Joe’s Coke.
But why would a sweetener be used in products that aren’t sweet? For one thing, HFCS functions as a preservative, meaning it gives food a longer shelf life. Unlike sugar, it also functions as a natural thickener, which leads to it being included in foods that already contain old-fashioned refined sugar. Most importantly, it can help make processed foods palatable; the way in which even a simple item like Corn Flakes gets made today makes it inedible unless some sort of sugar (and salt) is added. And when fat was taken out of many foods in the ’90s, HFCS was put in, in order to make these new “healthy” foods just as deliciously addictive.
Wait. Addictive? Not just bad for you, but actually physically addictive? Probably. New research indicates that sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the blood; in fact, patients with a supposed psychological need for sugar found it went away after being given the kinds of morphine blockers used to treat heroin addicts. What’s worse, sugar producers have known about this for decades. They’ve already put down this healthy rebellion once.
So the problem with HFCS isn’t necessarily that it’s worse than sugar, it’s that it’s caused sugar to appear absolutely everywhere in our diets. And even if what the industry says about “corn sugar” is accurate, there’s no accounting for the fact that the FDA doesn’t actually regulate the amount of fructose in HFCS. That’s right. There are actually quite a number of HFCS blends, including the supposedly benign kind, but you can’t know which was used in your meal. In fact, some foods that have tested positive for HFCS revealed compositions that were as high as 65 percent fructose. All of which might also help to explain why less-sedentary countries with low levels of obesity and high levels of HFCS consumption still showed a diabetes spike. And in this country, according to the American Heart Association, we consume 150 to 300 more calories a day than we used to. A full 50 percent of it from beverages.
None of this has stopped the corn syrup backlash backlash. Lots of well-meaning folks don’t like being told what to drink and when. But Bloomberg’s ban didn’t even attempt that; it only stopped food vendors — not grocery stores — from serving more than 16 ounces of soda in one glass. New Yorkers would have still been allowed to drink as much as they want; they would have simply been forced to consider how much they were actually consuming.
Joe, and quite a number of Americans, don’t like to do that either. Sedentary lifestyles definitely play a part in the obesity epidemic, but to assume they’re the main cause is just as illogical an approach as assuming cola consumption alone is the culprit. We’re not burning off that Coke, true — but we’re also not drinking that same Coke. And whatever that Coke is really made of, we’re consuming more of it. Even when that soda’s not in our hand.