Stuck in the 80’s: High Fructose Corn Syrup’s Survival Tactic

5 04 2008

By Jill Ettinger

The 1980s were a strange time in America. I turned nine just a month after Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term. I remember my parents explaining we had a new president who used to be an actor. How would he do his acting now, I wondered. My mom had just started working full-time, after my parents’ separation, and although we had a live-in nanny, my siblings and I spent a lot of our time unsupervised.  We were spastically enthusiastic about all things pop culture, discerning our likes and dislikes as they were delivered to us through radio, Solid Gold and peeling through copious stacks of Teen Beat with Cheetos residue on our fingers.

By early 1982, our dad had cable television in his apartment, where we’d spend weekends packing in as many hours watching MTV as he would allow (which was many; Pops is in the TV business, and was just as curious as we were). I soon developed an unrelenting ritual of begging the folks to take me to the mall every weekend so I could do my best to convince them that looking just like Madonna was tantamount to me not falling off the face of the earth. (If only we had Tevo back then, I could have paused the “Borderline” video and counted exactly how many black rubber bracelets one must wear.)

As the “brought to you by the 80’s” culture penetrated our country (like a thick splinter stuck in the foot), a line began to fade where artistic expression became muddled up with corporate agendas. Coca Cola launched a clothing line. I (gasp) owned crest toothpaste earrings. I remember clearly the moment of glory (?) when I purchased them, deciding that they would absolutely define me as some sort of rebel. (Against what I still don’t know.) But it was during Benetton’s bourgeois branding experiment that I was shaken into another reality. When they launched their shamelessly self-promoting line of rugby jerseys – which bore their name boldly across the chest – my father refused to buy one for me. “You’ll look like a walking billboard. They should pay you to wear something like that.” His point was shattering, too true to ignore.  My reliance on corporate agendas began to turn into suspicion.

If identity was defined by what we do or do not wear, then I saw too that important designation relating to what we eat, as it literally is what we become. My body was made of Starburst, Cap’n Crunch, Lemonheads, Twix Bars, Doritos and of course, Pepsi. Sometimes a 7-Up or Sprite would do, but nothing was ever as delicious as Cherry Coke. Maybe Dr. Pepper. Our mom tried to get us to drink juice and other beverages, but they too were just as sugar-laden as the sodas, only less obvious about it.

By 1984, Coca Cola’s famed “secret formula,” which had been virtually unchanged for one hundred years, replaced its number two ingredient with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The shift, like many as they occur, was regarded as just another advent of technology – modern science making lives better and easier. Microwavable brownies and high fructose corn syrup, that’s good modern day Jetson’s living. Syrup made from corn even sounded better for you than just plain old sugar. That stuff makes you fat and your teeth rot. Our family like most hardly gave it a consideration. Though my parents both were “diet” soda drinkers, the taste was too bitter for us kids, and we’d complain until we got to drink the sweet stuff. Obviously  we weren’t the only children who felt that way.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century where HFCS is considered to be the main source of calories in America, and one in three children are likely to develop Type II diabetes. Those same corporations that made us sick by hiding this stuff in virtually every packaged/processed food are now the same ones trying to normalize the disease in hopes that we don’t stop getting it, but rather just learn to live with it.

HFCS has long been touted as a “natural” sweetener by the Corn Refiners Association, but a look at the ballooning waistlines of our six year olds (and its other unhealthy effects) are clearly unnatural. The FDA, who has deflected regulating the term “natural” in the wake of strict organic regulations, are now raising a red flag in the food business, saying that HFCS is not natural and should not be allowed as an ingredient in products that make natural claims.

We’ve recently seen trans fats begin to exit our diets, with some cities banning it altogether. But Coca Cola? It’s an American institution for heaven’s sake. It’s not as simple as just reformulating back to sugar. There’s a huge, thriving corn syrup industry that needs to make record profits every year. So what will happen now that the FDA is suggesting more discrimination be used in marketing HFCS?  How crafty will marketing get to continue to invite people into serious health problems?

One thing I remember most fondly about the ’80s brands (before my disdain for corporations set in) was how needed and loved they made me feel. They were really open about their dependency on my measly allowance. Yes, lonely bag of Skittles, I will buy you and make you part of me. Don’t look so sad. Just keep tasting good for cheap and making cool commercials that look like my favorite videos. As I read this article on Jay Z and Live Nation “reinventing” the music industry yet again, I couldn’t help but think that maybe they should all quit beating around the bush and put the cards on the table with Coke, Pepsi or Taco Bell. (Roca Wear could be Coca wear … ya dig) Heck, those brands are already paying for placement in music videos and sponsoring tours anyway. All they need to do now is get MTV to start showing videos again and it’ll be just like the ’80s never left.

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One response

4 05 2010
MJ Turner

Kudos for this post. I realize that it’s a few years old, but still holds true. Thank goodness HFCS is getting more recognition now as the danger that it is!

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