Serves You Right

Article Published: Jan. 27, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011

Ever thought about how many "sweet and empty" calories you ingest every day? Could be 28 teaspoons, if you are average.

According to the USDA, the United States is the largest consumer of sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup, and is one of the largest global sugar importers.

In 2009, the average per capita intake of refined sugar was 13.4 teaspoons, high-fructose corn syrup 10.6 teaspoons, and other sweeteners, such as dextrose, syrups and honey, were 3.6 teaspoons for a total of 440 calories every day.

Back in 1970, when this data was first gathered, refined sugar intake was higher at 21.4 teaspoons, high-fructose corn syrup barely existed at .1 teaspoon, and other sweeteners were 3.5 teaspoons for a total of 401 calories.

In looking at these numbers, I'm surprised that we are only consuming 39 calories more per day from sweeteners than in 1970. Although 39 extra calories a day adds up to a 4-pound weight gain each year.

One thing that does not surprise me is the shift from refined sugar to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the diet. Looking at the ingredient list on food labels, it's in everything from candy to salad dressing.

According to the corn refiners association, HFCS enhances fruit and spice flavors in foods, such as yogurt and spaghetti sauces, gives chewy breakfast bars their soft texture and also protects freshness. It also keeps products fresh by maintaining consistent moisture.

Some people believe that HFCS is causing obesity. The scientific community concludes that HFCS is metabolically equivalent to sucrose. In other words, your body doesn't know whether the label said refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. There is no scientific support for the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is casually linked to obesity any more or less than other caloric sweeteners.

My main concern about the ingestion of so much HFCS is found in reports indicating that some of it is contaminated with mercury. Mercury is a potent brain toxin that we know accumulates in fish and seafood, although diet is not the only route we are exposed. When babies are exposed to elevated mercury in the womb, their brains develop abnormally, impairing learning abilities and reducing IQ.

Scientists collected samples from three different HFCS manufacturers and analyzed for total mercury. The samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of HRCS. Average daily consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is about 50 grams per person in the United States (

In another study, nearly one in three of 55 HFCS containing foods that were tested contained mercury. Fortunately, no mercury was detected in the majority of beverages tested, which is the biggest source of HFCS in our diets.

Mercury was found at levels several times higher than the lowest detectable limits in some snack bars, barbecue sauce, sloppy joe mix, yogurt and chocolate syrup.

The production of HFCS calls for the use of caustic soda, also known as sodium hydroxide or lye.

"Mercury-grade" caustic soda comes from chlorine plants still using outdated technology that relies on the use of mercury. Fortunately, the technology is being phased out, but still in existence.

Hopefully, over the next few years, the mercury cell technology will be completely replaced, eliminating mercury in HFCS. But for now, look at the ingredient list on packages to make sure you, and especially your children, aren't overdoing it.

Added sweeteners do make life more enjoyable, as we are born loving sweetness. But perhaps we should consider highly sweetened foods a special treat, rather than a daily food group.

This recipe is a delicious alternative to HFCS sweetened beverages, enjoyed by children and adults.

Naturally-Sweetened Soda

Favorite 100% juice, no added sugar
Carbonated water with lemon-lime flavor (not artificially sweetened)

Mix equal amount of juice and carbonated water. Serve over ice.

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups and is the local food coordinator for Watauga County. To contact Margie, e-mail or cal (828) 264-3061.

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