Thursday, February 19, 2009
Image by wwarby.
In past posts, I have discussed the numerous reasons why high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a substance worth avoiding - first and foremost, it is a key player in the obesity epidemic, contributing hundreds of calories (but no nutrients) to many of society's favourite foods (Fluff is my personal favourite). But now it turns out that the negative effects of HFCS are even more far-reaching than I had thought. I am not speaking about the recent reports that HFCS may be tainted with mercury (detailed here by Darya Pino at Thought for Food), although that is also very frightening. No, according to the interesting new book Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen, HFCS also plays an important role in the recent decline in worldwide honey bee populations, a situation which Jacobsen suggests will have a dramatic impact on our ability to produce enough fresh fruit to feed ourselves in the coming years.
Historically, honey bees collected pollen and nectar from plants, providing them with both the protein and carbohydrates that they need to live healthy, productive lives. However, in recent years beekeepers have begun feeding bees HFCS as a way to maintain their energy stores in the winter. As I mentioned earlier, HFCS is full of calories, but devoid of protein or other nutrients. Thus, bees whose diet consists mostly of HFCS are nutrient deprived, resulting in weak immune systems, hives that are riddles with viruses (Jacobsen describes it as a scenario similar to bee AIDS) and the eventual collapse of the entire hive. Although HFCS is not the only major problem afflicting modern bee populations (pesticides and less than ideal living conditions also play important roles), Jacobsen suggests that HFCS plays a key role in the recent collapse of bee populations across North America.
Why does this concern us, and how does it relate to obesity? Well, it turns out that commercially raised honey bees are responsible for pollinating a massive proportion of our food supply, including pretty much all our fruits and berries (including the fruit that we tend to think of as vegetables), and thus without bees, our food supply will shrink dramatically. Many people (myself included) are urging people to eat a more healthful diet higher in plant-based foods - that's going to be much harder, if not impossible, if fruit supplies go down the tubes. If Jacobsen is right, this is an issue which won't just affect obesity rates (although it undoubtedly will, one way or the other), but the ability of society to provide itself with nutritious food.
So let's recap. High fructose corn syrup is unequivocally bad for people - the best thing that anyone can say about it is that it is no worse than table sugar, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. It may contain mercury, which is obviously a bad thing. And it may be contributing to an epidemic among a species of animal which we are completely dependent upon for nearly all of our fresh fruit. Why is this stuff being produced at all???
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