This is from the Washington Post; the article is linked here:
Regular Sugar vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Thursday, May 21, 2009
A colleague of yours recently debunked the idea that regular sugar is necessarily healthier than high-fructose corn syrup. But what about the health of the planet? Corn needs a lot of processing before it can sweeten my soda, but sugar doesn’t sprinkle from the skies. So which one is more environmentally friendly?
It’s true: King Corn is as much a bogeyman for the eco-conscious as the health-conscious. The crop gets a bad rap because it’s so ubiquitous. Thanks to aggressive farm subsidies, 27 percent of America’s farm acres are devoted to corn. According to anti-corn crusader Michael Pollan, modern corn hybrids require more pesticides and more fertilizers than any other food crop; this not only requires major inputs of fossil fuels but also causes significant groundwater pollution.
But it’s not entirely fair to lay all of that at the sticky feet of high-fructose corn syrup, as the maligned sweetener accounts for only about 5 percent of America’s total grain corn production.
Of course, even at just 5 percent of the overall crop, we’re still talking about a lot of farmland: Nearly 4 million acres’ worth of grain corn became high-fructose corn syrup in 2008. Compare that with the 1 million acres planted with sugar beets and 872,000 with sugar cane, the two crops that produce the sucrose we generically refer to as “sugar.”
In 2007, an Australian sugar cane industry group compared the environmental impacts of growing Australian cane, United Kingdom beets and American corn. The products analyzed were 1 kilogram of sugar in clarified juice form from both cane and beets, and 1 kilogram of simple sugar syrup from cornstarch. The researchers found that, on average, fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions and the release of acidifying substances seemed highest with corn sugar, while water usage was highest for cane sugar. A big wild card here is that making sweetener from any of those crops returns some useful byproducts that can offset some of the environmental burdens. Sugar cane probably gets the biggest plus in this category, as its waste fiber, known as bagasse, makes an efficient fuel source: Many sugar mills — where cane stalks from the field are converted into raw sugar — run entirely on bagasse, cutting out the need for additional fossil fuels.
So sugar cane seems to be the most efficient producer of sugar and potentially the lightest user of fossil fuels, even though its significant water requirements can’t be ignored.
But to truly compare table sugar with high-fructose corn syrup, we need to look at the latter stages of processing. We know that evaporating cane and beet juice into dry, raw sugar requires significant amounts of energy. Producing the finer stuff not only involves several more steps — evaporating, spinning, melting, chemical decolorizing treatments — it also means more food miles, because these steps occur in a separate facility.
Meanwhile, to turn simple corn syrup into high-fructose corn syrup, enzymes are used to convert 90 percent of the glucose molecules into super-sweet fructose before the resulting solution gets blended back with simple glucose syrup. It’s unclear just what kind of additional burden these final steps account for, but we do know that the entire corn wet-milling process takes a whole lot of energy. According to the consulting firm FTI, it’s the most energy-intensive food-manufacturing industry in America.
As your mom and your dentist have told you, take all things in moderation and you’ll probably be fine; that goes for sugar and high-fructose corn syrup as well. Cutting down on our overall sweetener intake makes a lot more sense than simply switching one for the other. After all, if we boycotted high-fructose corn syrup and instead ramped up our consumption of cane sugar, where would we find enough hot, humid land to put all those additional cane fields? Are you willing to gobble up the rest of Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas just to avoid corn in your Coke?