I am veering away today from the integrative approach to autism to publish an equally important blog entry focused on fast food. More accurately processed food, which should be called “low cost alternative to food”. This entry is accompanying the conversation started this week by Michael Moss in the NY Times. (http://j.mp/WdMFQy)
I came across a TV ad today that equates cane sugar to corn sugar and jumps to the conclusion that sugar is sugar, and therefore HFCS is “just sugar”. It is customary for the advertising industry to manipulate the truth for profit, but this was flat-out lying.
Cane sugar is glucose, the natural sugar the human body uses to make energy. Corn sugar (HFCS) is fructose, which is NOT the natural sugar your body likes to utilize. Let me start by explaining something about the human body I learned over the past 30 years. Our body is very particular yet very accommodating. It is particular in the sense that it allows only specific chemicals to enter into its metabolic mechanisms. It is accommodating in the sense that it can deal with a wide variety of chemicals, no matter how noxious they are – to a certain extent.
To make the fuel we need for physical and mental activities, our body burns glucose (cane sugar and many other sources). The body uses the energy stored in the carbon backbone of glucose to produce the necessary components for our energy needs. These metabolic pathways involved in energy production are very particular to glucose. They do not accommodate any other sugars, including fructose.
But many tropical fruits contain fructose not to mention corn, a food staple?
You have to make a distinction between naturally occurring fructose and HFCS. Corn, mango, pineapple, plantain and several other fruits and vegetables contain fructose. Eating these food items exposes your body to minimal amounts of fructose, which we have learned to deal with over many generations. HFCS on the other hand, contains many times more the amount of fructose per unit weight than any fruit or vegetable you can possibly consume. As I mentioned in the beginning, the body is accommodating. This means that the body can deal with the occasional exposure to a noxious agent and can detoxify it efficiently. Usually this process does not rise up to your consciousness in the form of symptoms or otherwise. However, when you insist on loading your body with inordinate amounts of a noxious agent on a daily basis, eventually it will come to your attention in the form of unpleasant symptoms and illness.
What happens to fructose when it enters the human body?
Since the energy producing pathways cannot use fructose for fuel, then the body classifies it as a noxious agent. The human body deals with thousands of noxious agents daily. Usually the handling happens in the liver, fat and other sites. The liver takes in noxious agents like fructose and tries to break them down and neutralize their toxic effects.
Why is HFCS harmful then if the liver can handle it?
For most of us, we are exposed to noxious agents sparingly. We might smell household detergent fumes. We may occasionally ingest heavy metals, pesticides, solvents etc… However, in the case of HFCS we are exposed to it in each and every meal. If you shop at a mainstream grocery store or worse, if you eat at fast food parlors and grocery store delis then you are eating inordinate amounts of HFCS on a daily basis. The load of HFCS your liver has to deal with eventually exhausts your liver’s ability to detoxify. In other words if you keep eating HFCS, in 5-20 years it may overwhelm your liver and render it ineffective in protecting you against inescapable noxious agents. This is when not only your liver is failing but also you pancreas (diabetes); your vision is also weakened. Your general ability to cope with stress is significantly compromised too. This is just to mention a few major “side effects”.
What does all this have to do with autism or asperger’s?
A more sensitive body like that of someone on the spectrum is already more likely to classify chemicals as noxious agents and is more likely to respond to them more vigorously than a neurotypical person. Under these circumstances, an autistic person is operating near capacity in handling noxious agents. A daily addition to HFCS might and often will lead an autistic person to decompensate emotionally and physically much faster than an insensitive person. Some of the observed effects of HFCS on autistic children include tummy aches, irregular bowel habits (diarrhea/constipation), aversion to food, temper tantrums, anxiety, regression in social and emotional milestones, headaches etc…
Why is the food industry so adamant on using HFCS?
Well, you want to consider that most food stuffs spoil in 2 weeks or less even when refrigerated. From an economic perspective and “fiduciary responsibility” to share holders, this is an inefficient system that results in lots of waste. Back in the fifties, a chemist in Louisiana was experimenting with concentrating corn fructose and found out that this fructose concentrate extended the shelf life of most foods to about 12-14 months. By the seventies, the food industry was using HFCS for just about anything. Today, over 90% of all food items in the grocery store contain HFCS. Additionally more than 95% of all food items in fast food parlors and delis contain HFCS. Why does HFCS extend the shelf life of everything under the sun so effectively; well because microbes won’t eat it. Critters of all kinds stay clear of food containing fructose concentrate. Nevertheless, we are supposed to eat it without any complaints.
Why can the food industry use such a wide array of chemicals in our food?
The food industry is using an expanding list of chemicals that are added freely to our foods. None of these chemicals is subject to any sort of human testing before introduction to the grocery store. There are simply no laws or regulations compelling the food industry to prove that the unsanctioned chemicals in our food are safe for human consumption. There is a reason chemists are not doctors. The pride of any chemist is to discover or make a chemical that performs a specific function no other chemical can do. Can you say super glue? However, it remains to be seen which of these chemicals is safe for people and which is not. Unless and until we subject the food industry to a rigorous process that prevents them from adding any chemicals to our food unless this chemical is properly tested on animals and humans, then our food will continue to be a major source of illness. The collusion between eager chemists and profit hungry stakeholders is literally a deadly combination unless we force its regulation.
Rami Serhan, MD
Author, Psyche-Smart Autism; Integrative Medicine Consultant
(206) 659-1ASD (273)
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