Where The Sugar Comes From

Why are diabetes rates rising around the world? One possible culprit is the increased amount of sugar people are eating. Most sugar isn’t white powder spooned into tea or frosting on a cake. It’s hidden. Where is it, and where did it come from?


The simple answer is “corn.” In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food researcher and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan explains that whatever you eat in America, it’s mostly corn.

Any food that comes in a package is likely full of corn. Citing Pollan, Washington Post writer Bunny Crumpacker states, “Corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup are in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills.” And that’s not even focusing on high-fructose (extra-sugary) corn syrup. “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based.”

Corn hardly stops there. Food additives, like the wax applied to fruits and vegetables to make them shine, have corn in them. Perhaps not all of this counts as sugar, but it’s all carbohydrate and most of it is in there for its sweetening or thickening qualities. Even the shelves and signs in the supermarket contain corn. It’s probably not good for you, especially not with every meal.

On the Web site Ecoliteracy, Pollan writes, “Take a typical fast food meal. Corn is the sweetener in the soda. It’s in the corn-fed beef Big Mac patty, and in the high-fructose syrup in the bun, and in the secret sauce. Slim Jims are full of corn syrup, dextrose, cornstarch, and a great many additives. The “four different fuels” in a Lunchables meal, are all essentially corn-based. The chicken nugget — including feed for the chicken, fillers, binders, coating, and dipping sauce — is all corn. The French fries are made from potatoes, but odds are they’re fried in corn oil, the source of 50 percent of their calories. Even the salads at McDonald’s are full of high-fructose corn syrup and thickeners made from corn… Of the 37 ingredients in chicken nuggets, something like 30 are made, directly or indirectly, from corn.”

Going low-carb, high-protein is no defense. Most beef and pork is corn-fed. Likewise chickens, turkeys, eggs, even farmed fish. True, eating corn in the form of a cow doesn’t add sugar to your diet. It just adds saturated fats that are quite different from and less healthy than the fat in grass-fed animals.

People are starting to worry about all this packaged hidden sugar, especially the HFCS. So the corn industry is trying to repackage HFCS as “corn sugar”, which maybe sounds less threatening. The front page of the industry site cornsugar.com quotes scientists saying things like “HFCS is just sugar, and affects the body the same way as sugar. It’s no worse.” If that’s true, though, we should still be as careful about it as we would with sugar.

It’s also worth noting that industrial corn growing is an ecological disaster. According to Pollan, It takes a 1/3 of a gallon of oil to grow a bushel of corn on a commercial American farm. That oil ends up somewhere, in water, air, soil, or our food. And it’s running out. (That’s why the idea of ethanol, turning corn into fuel to run cars, is so insane. It takes almost as much or more oil to grow and produce the ethanol as you get back from using it. Problematic as it is, feeding corn to people and animals is far better than feeding it to cars.)

If corn is in pretty much all packaged food and all fast food, I would vote for avoiding those foods. According to Pollan and others, 90% of American food dollars are spent on processed (usually corn-based) foods in one form or another. While I’ve got nothing against corn as a plant, it seems we should be diversifying our diets.

One caution — it’s not good to be a purist about such things. I’m pretty sure the occasional packaged snack won’t hurt you, but they should probably be infrequent treats. And perhaps even that restriction is too strict. Are there packaged foods that are good to eat? Is it possible to eat an entirely whole-food diet? If you’ve tried that, how does it work for you?

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  • Deb

    When my daughter was little, she was allergic to corn, milk, eggs, tomatoes, and chocolate. The corn was the hardest thing to avoid! I had to make everything from scratch, including confectioners sugar! (You grind regular cane sugar in a blender with potato starch.) Eventually she outgrew all the allergies.
    Now I can’t eat corn at all and I’m finding things are even worse than 30 years ago. There are very few packaged foods I can eat, and almost no breads or condiments. Thanks to Hunt’s for coming out with a catsup with no high-fructose corn syrup! Miracle Whip took the HCFS out, but left the cornstarch in. I have to peel foods I’d rather eat whole.
    I’m betting the corn syrup folks would like it all to be called just “sugar” so we wouldn’t know we were eating it.
    I seriously suspect that HCFS had a lot to do with my becoming diabetic, because I used to drink lots of Coke Classic and eat processed foods.

  • jim snell

    EaGads – Corn every where. SO it is trus, to fatten up cows in the feedlot – feed em corn.

    For humans we hide it everywhere as stated in blog.

    Very fascinating, revealing and problematic.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • calgarydiabetic

    America eats 100 grams of fructose, 100 grams of glucose and more than 100 g of starch a day per capita. Then we wonder why diabetes is increasing. The University of Saskatchewan is going to publish a paper in the ADA journal showing that the massive amount of glycolysis required to hadle this produces too much methylglycoxal and that this compound is cytotoxic to the beta cells. Could be a canard like cold fusion but if this is true fat will become beautiful.

  • jim snell

    calgarydiabetic on target and has something here.

    Too many people in too many places suffering from diabetes makes article highly suggestive and requiring further study.

  • Laura

    It is worse than you really know, first corn sucks the life out of the soil, then we plant corn again, and again, so what do you think the nutrient content is of all the corn that is grown in the USA. DO YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU’RE EATING? I don’t think so, when you pick something it starts the process of going to ROT from the moment it is picked, corn starts the process of going to starch. I try to avoid everything I can, sugar,salt,starch(all) starches, yeast, most meats. I have taken to my back yard, I grow all my spices, most all my veggies, I even have several fruit trees, if you truly want to be healthy, I think it’s time to return to being a self sufficient as possible. I eat a lot of soy and yes I grow the beans, I love pudding from soy milk. Big strawberries in my soy ice cream, made with honey and a little splenda, which I use very sparingly, because it is not healthy either. Do your own home work and you’ll do the same thing to. I see how we feed our children and it really scares me, sugar cereal, milk with hormones, sandwich with the misery meat (preservatives +++) with a drink of sugar, then maybe a healthy dinner, where the veggies are push around the plate and then dessert of snacks though, what percentage of your grocery bill is snacks. I’ve tried to tell my children that their children DON’T NEED SUGAR OR SWEETS, until they are old. You need to feed them better, remember your pancreas will only produce a certain amount of beta cells for your life time or I should or I should says it’s life time, so we don’t need to start using them up from the very beginning. Dr. Atkins had it more right than anyone gave him credit for. Remember you are what you eat!!! Eat well and be well..The persuit to happiness.

  • Jon Hill

    After years of struggling to learn and live by correct dietary rules that work for me, there is one rule that I have come to think of as my prime directive: EAT FRESH! I’ve found there is more foundational substance in that rule than in just about anyting else I’ve tried. Sure, there are other details that work for me under that banner, such as eat mostly vegetables and fruits, and sometimes it’s easier to get my black beans from a can, but EAT FRESH is a simple rule that helps put the kibosh on our culture of eating processed stuff. Thanks for the heads up on Pollan’s book, David. This certainly deserves more of my attention.

  • BimBam

    What about wheat? It’s in everything too. All of these are nothing but starches which supposedly convert to sugar in the body.

  • Lynne Nelson

    I wouldn’t be surprised if high fructose corn syrup caused or aggravated the potential for diabetes.
    I went on a diet for a period of several years and lost over 50 pounds and maintained my weight loss for 6 years. However, I did so by utilizing many frozen diet foods and thinking of the labels now, everything contained high fructose corn syrup.

    I was so naive at the time that I imagined that this stuff was good for you! And believed it to be similar to sugars found in fruit, which I also thought to be healthy. Now after 11 years with diabetes and much reading and research, I avoid all sugars, except for rare occasions and also limit breads, pasta and rice, and have been able to maintain A1c at or below 6.5.
    Needless to say, I don’t use much in the way of processed foods, except for frozen vegetables or berries.

  • Diane

    I have just started using Organic Agave Nectar as a sweetener, and have found that I like using it. It comes from the Agave plant, so it is natural. It is sweeter than sugar, so takes less to sweeten things, and can be used in hot or cold foods/drinks. It also has a low Glycemic Index, so won’t cause blood sugars to spike quickly, due to being digested more slowly.