Hope Jahren on Corn, Coke, and Convenience Food

How High-Fructose Corn Syrup Became an American Staple

Sometimes I miss my father so much that I cannot taste my food. I am better now than I was, but there are days when it hits me especially hard, when I cannot believe that he is actually gone. He died in 2016, at the age of 92. My mother and my brothers and I had sat wreathed around his frail body for days in the hospital, until the very end, when I crawled into his bed and held him while the doctor removed the ventilator from his trachea. His breath grew ragged and finally stopped, and I saw the nurse brush away a tear as she turned off the EKG monitor and unplugged it for the last time. 

I used to worry that I would forget my father, and that my memory of him would fade, but I have found it not to be the case. 

I don’t even have to close my eyes to see his face or to hear his voice, but it goes deeper than that. His smell, his breathing, his bodily presence, were what my infant brain studied while he held me as a baby—which he did for hours on end, “for no reason,” according to my mother—and these things were what I knew before I knew my own name. If I am fortunate to live so long as to be overtaken by old age such that I forget what I am called, I will still recall the man who loved me first and who loved me best. 

“Coke with chow; wow!” is what my dad would say every single time he sat down to a glass of Coca-Cola, his voice perfectly tuned to just the right frequency of incredulous enthusiasm—the same one that he used to recite Rudyard Kipling poems. Like many families during the 1970s, we didn’t drink pop on a daily basis, and when we did, it was part of a makeshift supper when my mother was away from home. Coke with chow (wow) typically involved scrambled eggs and was the first dinner that I learned to serve when my mother was busy attending evening classes in nursing school. 

The only thing that my father knew to do when he became hungry was to sit at the table and wait to be served; I never witnessed him turn on the stove, not once in my whole life. With that attitude, you can’t afford to be picky or critical, and my dad was neither. “Coke with chow; wow!” he would exclaim every time his seven-year-old daughter set a plate of runny eggs before him, and every time his eight-year-old daughter made him a stack of burnt pancakes, and every time his ten-year-old daughter dished out watery pasta and then covered it in canned tomatoes. Then he would dig in, and all talking would cease, until he looked up appreciatively to inquire about seconds. 

“Coke with chow; wow!” was the tagline of an advertisement that ran only briefly in 1956 but will ring immortal through 

the ages if my family has anything to say about it. My dad must have first heard the phrase 13 years before I was born, but I heard him repeat it back to me for more than 40 years afterward. Now I repeat the phrase to my son every time we sit down with our Pepsis at Target Field and wait for the Twins to start warming up. We chat while watching for signs of life in the dug-out, and I tell him stories about his grandfather who used to say, “Coke with chow; wow!”—especially about the year when he turned 80 and often held his infant grandson for hours at a time, for no reason. 

Once upon a time in America, most jobs required heavy physical labor. American women, in turn, spent considerable time preparing high-carbohydrate foods for their families. Frying and boiling go quickly, but baking and canning take time. Pies, cookies, and cakes require preparation plus a good hour or so in the oven. The straining, stirring, sterilizing, and sealing required for jellies, jams, and preserves can easily eat up a whole morning, if not a couple of days.

The largest source of new sugar in American history first appeared with the advent of “convenience foods.”

When women began to work outside the home, the hours available for meeting domestic demands dwindled, and time-consuming activities such as baking got cut under the sensible rationale that they had mostly yielded treats, after all. Accordingly, the record of white sugar purchased per household shows a plummeting trend between 1950 and 1975. Across that same time period, however, the total amount of sugar that the average American consumed each day increased. 

Some of the reason for this has to do with the irony that women were serving more desserts than ever across this time period; they were just serving them outside of their homes. During the postwar economic boom of the 1950s, more than one million new waitressing jobs were created. America’s businessmen were traveling farther for work, and eating away from home became common, as did the concept of the business lunch. By 2005, Americans were getting one-third of their total calories from restaurants. 

But the largest source of new sugar in American history first appeared with the advent of “convenience foods”—a term coined by General Foods in the 1950s to describe their new line of foods and beverages that were “easy to buy, store, open, prepare, and eat.” These ready-to-eat meals and snacks have come to dominate the supermarket aisles, gas station shelves, and vending machine racks of America. As of 2010, half of the money that Americans spend on food goes to convenience foods. 

Convenience foods are loaded with sugar. Packaged cakes, cookies, and candies are more or less based on sugar, but sugar is also added to the cheese and sauces that season ready-to-eat meals, as well as to the sausage, bacon, and ham that go into them. At present, three out of four of the food items that Americans purchase have had refined sugar added to them in order to make them more attractive to the consumer. 

In the 1970s, the average American was ingesting almost one pound of sugar per week in the form of sweeteners added to convenience foods. During the decades that followed, the American workday got longer. As families relied more heavily on convenience foods to meet their needs, the average intake of added sugar spiked to an all-time high of nearly one and a half pounds per week in 2004. 

The year 1956—of “Coke with chow; wow!”—seems very far away now. It is difficult to imagine a time when a person’s reaction to seeing a can of Coca-Cola sounded anything like “Wow!” In the 1960s, Coca-Cola ads became more existential when statements such as “Things go better with Coke” replaced references to actual things such as “chow.” Coca-Cola progressed to become “the Real Thing” in 1969, and by 1982, Coke was simply “It.” In 1993, Coke’s slogan was unsparingly categorical: “Always Coca-Cola.” And by then, for many American refrigerators, this was more or less the case. 

As recently as 2007, the average American was consuming one can of Pepsi or Coca-Cola every 43 hours, and though consumption has decreased since then, every American man, woman, and child still drinks upward of one liter of cola per week, on average. 

In fact, most of the rapid increase in sugar consumption between 1962 and 2000 came not in the form of food but as beverages: sodas, sports drinks, fruit punch, and lemonade—Americans increased from an average intake of one can of sugary beverage every other day in 1977 to drinking one can every seventeen hours by 2000. Today, sugared beverages are the cheapest (and emptiest) calories that can be purchased and make up a full 10 percent of all the calories that Americans consume. 

But why did sugar-sweetened beverages, which had already been on the market for almost a century, take off so sharply during the last 50 years? The answer might surprise you: it all goes back to a couple of years of bad weather. 

Fruit and honey have sweetened the human diet for millennia, but during the Middle Ages, merchants learned to refine and crystallize dry sugar from grassy cane plants in the sunny tropics and, later, from earthy beets dug out of the gravelly soils of Europe. Today, what we recognize as table sugar—brown, beige, or white—is a purified compound called sucrose. 

Table sugar forms when two chemicals join together like a butterfly, one wing made of glucose and the other wing made of fructose. This butterfly, purified from sugar cane or sugar beet plants, is what Americans brought home in five-pound bags during the 1950s and regarded as a staple for their larders, but today it is no longer the dominant sugar of the American diet. 

In 1972, a horrible drought parched the vast farm fields of what is now Russia; its breadbasket region, Ukraine, was particularly hard-hit. Normal precipitation did not resume for years, and sugar-beet harvests suffered tremendously. To offset these short- ages, the U.S.S.R. sought to import both grain and sugar from the outside world and entered the global marketplace for the first time in decades. 

On the heels of the drought in Russia, Hurricane Carmen blazed through the tropics, 7,000 miles away. She pummeled her way across the Caribbean Sea and into the Gulf of Mexico, devastating the sugarcane fields of Puerto Rico and Louisiana. During the years that followed, low global supply met with high global demand, and Americans witnessed a horrifying spike in table sugar prices. Behind the scenes of this chaos, American exports of a seemingly unrelated commodity quietly doubled in value. That commodity was cornstarch. 

After corn kernels are pulled from the cob, they can be replanted, eaten whole, or milled into their basic components: oil, protein, and starch. Cornstarch is a chemical with a very simple structure, hundreds of repeating molecules, all in a line, like a string of paper angels for a Christmas tree. In the 1960s, Japanese food scientists perfected a method to slice cornstarch into its individual units, and a second method to twist glucose molecules into fructose. Interestingly, the end product was a syrupy sugar, not a crystalline one—a syrup containing extra fructose relative to table sugar. They named this product high-fructose corn syrup, more simply known as HFCS. 

High-fructose corn syrup is really just the newest by-product of the perennial surplus of American corn.

Flustered by the 1974 sugar shortage, America turned full throttle to producing HFCS from corn, a crop that it had always grown in great abundance. It didn’t take many years for America to become the world’s largest producer of HFCS; by 1982, the United States was exporting more than a thousand tons per year. HFCS began to displace table sugar consumption, and today, one out of every three calories from sugar in the American diet is consumed as HFCS. 

The truth is that HFCS is superior to table sugar for many purposes. Crystalline sugar has a nasty habit of hydrolyzing when mixed with acids, which is a fancy way to say that it tastes funny and turns brown. Not only is HFCS free from this trait, it’s also hygroscopic, which means that it holds moisture, thus helping to maintain the appearance of freshness over time—perfect for packaged treats that must wait for months, or even years, to be selected from a gas station shelf or the inside of a vending machine. 

Most important, HFCS is a ready-to-dissolve liquid, making it an ideal sweetener for beverage manufacture. As the benefits of HFCS took hold, its production skyrocketed, and the amount of American corn set aside each year for milling into starch increased dramatically. In 2001, Americans were manufacturing more than nine million tons of HFCS per year from cornstarch and consuming 95 percent of it as convenience foods and sweetened beverages. 

The steep increase in HFCS consumption from basically nothing during the 1970s up to almost 10 percent of total calories by the year 2000 has closely coincided with Americans’ sharp increase in weight over the same several decades, sparking a bitter debate among scientists about the culpability of HFCS in the obesity epidemic. There are good arguments on both sides: HFCS has effectively loaded the American diet with fructose, and high rates of fructose intake have been shown to disrupt fat and insulin metabolism in animals. On the other hand, as HFCS intake increased, physical activity did not increase, leading to a simple excess of calories. 

It is not clear that HFCS is worse for your diet than table sugar, but it is clear that table sugar and HFCS are both worse for you than eating nothing. There is no downside, and no risk, to eliminating their consumption in favor of water—and some studies have shown great benefits. This is why nutrition intervention programs have targeted soda, and many consumers have embraced the campaign.

Carbonated beverage sales in the United States were down 12 percent in 2012 from what they had been in 2007, and total sugar consumption has decreased as well. Sugar is faltering in America relative to 20 years ago, but today’s figure is still easily twice as high as it was when I was a child during the 1970s. 

At this point, you may be asking: What do manufacturers do with the excess ten million tons of HFCS that Americans have stopped drinking? The answer is simple: They export it to Mexico, where soda consumption has become the highest in the world. In Mexico, the average person gains 12 percent of their total calories from HFCS-laden snacks such as sugar-sweetened beverages and packaged convenience foods, and this hits children especially hard: more than 80 percent of Mexican adolescents consume more sugar than the recommended value. 

As of yet, however, HFCS is not widely consumed outside of the United States, Mexico, and Canada; it is a local North American product. Indeed, HFCS is really just the newest by-product of the perennial surplus of American corn. Almost 20 percent of the world’s cornstarch is produced within the United States; should global demand render it profitable, the United States could easily double or even triple HFCS production and export, essentially overnight. 

But let’s get back to table sugar, or plain old sucrose, because we are still eating an awful lot of that as well. In 1969, the entire human population consumed about 60 million tons of sucrose. Since then, global consumption has nearly tripled. This year, the United States will import enough refined table sugar to fill Yankee Stadium three times over. Then what? What happens to all this sugar—and the meat, and vegetables, and grain, and eggs and cheese that we put on our plates? Where does it end up? 

Forty percent of it, at least, goes straight into the garbage. 

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From The Story of More by Hope Jahren. Copyright © 2020 by A. Hope Jahren. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Hope Jahren
Hope Jahren
Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given within the Earth Sciences. The Story of More is available from Vintage Books.





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