Monday, March 06, 2006


So. 1828. It's a special year. I've mentioned it before in this blog. Cocoa powder was first dutched. Andrew Jackson was voted into office. It's encoded in the transendental number e. It's just special.

It turns out to be the year that Friedrich Woehler discovered that urea can be made out of potassium cyanate and ammonium sulfate. This accidental discovery essentially created an entirely new branch of chemistry. Unfortunately, nearly a full 200 years later, people haven't caught on.

Before Woehler, people believed that living things were special: Life could not be reproduced by mechanism alone. If you needed an organic chemical, like sugar, you couldn't just synthesize it. You needed to have some living being infuse the basic chemical building blocks with its living energy before you could get the sugar. This belief has a name : Vitalism.

Woehler's great contribution was to show that an organic chemical --- urea --- could be synthesized completely from two very inorganic chemicals --- without the use of anybody's life energy. In essence, he showed that vitalism was, for all intents and purposes, completely wrong.

So, fast-forward 200 years. Organic chemistry has come quite a long way. We're synthesizing all sorts of "organic" chemicals, and using them in all our major foodstuffs. The problem? Most people will tell you that those chemicals aren't nearly as healthy for you as natural "organic" chemicals that come from crops and animals grown on farms without any hormones and pesticides and whatnot. These people are our modern-day vitalists, caught forever in 1828.

Let's look at sugar. In particular, let's look at "high-fructose corn syrup." It's an ingredient in countless prepackaged foods. Sadly, if you talk with our modern-vitalists, they'll tell you that high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you. Countless people will tell you it is the reason America is obese. Countless people will tell you that it causes who knows what sort of health problems.

Let's see how rational folk look at what high-fructose corn syrup is. It all starts with corn syrup. As you may have noticed, even sweet corn isn't terribly sweet. Corn is, however, very starchy. Organic chemistry teaches us that starches are simply strings of sugar molecules that are chained together. Food scientists have discovered, that they can take those starches, and break them down into sugars using enzymes. Two types of sugars are created in this process --- fructose and glucose. High-fructose corn syrup is corn syrup that has more fructose than glucose. You could, presumably, call other forms "high-glucose corn syrup."

What causes our modern day vitalists to view high-fructose corn syrup as some freakish abomination?

Maybe it's fear of this enzymatic breakdown of starch into sugar? Even though the human body does the same enzymatic breakdown in the process of digestion? Even though cooking (e.g. caramelization) will do the same thing?

Maybe it's the fact that it's fructose instead of sucrose, our "natural sweetener" that we find in cane sugar? What is this fructose thing? It turns out that it is a simple sugar, just like sucrose. It's found in high concentrations in honey, tree fruits (e.g. apples or peaches), berries, melons, beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Why don't vitalists get their panties in an uproar when we send our kids to school eating high-fructose apples and high-fructose oranges? The world may never know. In fact, fructose tends to taste sweeter than sucrose, and tends to be better for diabetics because it has a lower glycemic index than sucrose.

Maybe someday, the scientists of the world will unite, and make the soda bars seem to be safe for our kids again. But I suppose, I shouldn't hold my breath. After all, it's been 200 years and still no progress has been made...

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