A few years ago, I decided to give up Corn Syrup for Lent. Since it's that time of year again, I thought I'd share what I did, how I avoided corn syrup, and what the unexpected results were.
While I come from a Christian background, my family was not Orthodox. We did not traditionally celebrate Lent. However, I really like and respect the idea behind it, one of self-control, reflection, giving thanks, and personal improvement.
I also wanted to try to give something up that would be very challenging, to really make me think about it, and something that might have unexpected results.
So, I challenged my self to not eat any corn syrup from after Fat Tuesday, all the way to Easter. No High-Fructose, no regular corn syrup, and no corn syrup solids. How did I do? Come along and find out!
Step 1: Read Labels
The very first trick is to read labels!
How do you know what you are eating, if you don't read the ingredient list?
In general, American labeling laws are fairly good. The label will list everything in the product as well as it's country of origin. (We unfortunately do NOT yet list genetically-modified ingredients, but by avoiding corn syrup, you'll be avoiding a lot of GMOs as well.)
Ingredients are listed in order of most to least, based on weight. If Corn Syrup is the second ingredient, it means there's less of that than the first ingredient, but more of it than the third.
You'll also sometime see Corn Syrup listed more than once. It's not uncommon to see beverages with an ingredient list of "Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup,......"
Beverages, such as soft-drinks are what we usually think of when it comes to corn syrup, but read ALL labels, it's also common in something as simple as bread, and "corn syrup solids" are common in powered beverage mixes and non-dairy creamer.
Another interesting bit on labeling laws, when the product name is on the front of the box or can, it ALSO must be listed in order of the weight of the ingredients. I once saw a box of frozen Salisbury Steaks and notice that it actually read in very small print "Beef Gravy and" and then in HUGE PRINT "Salisbury Steaks"! The product being bought was actually gravy with a little beef, not the other way around!
Step 2: Learn to Cook
A friend of mine said "It's easy to avoid corn syrup, just don't eat any processed foods." When I told her that to me, processed foods are anything I didn't make myself from scratch, she said "Exactly!".
So, there you have it. Time to learn to cook.
Almost the only way to not eat corn syrup is just not put it in your food. And the only way to control that, is to cook for yourself.
Now, I am actually not a bad cook at all. I don't do tons of it, and it's usually somewhat experimental (that's half the fun of it!) but I am capable of more than boiling water. I have made a rue before, can build a decent soup, and have rudimentary baking experience.
If you don't, find somebody who can give you a hand. There are still plenty of great home cooks out there. If nobody in your family is much of a cook, find a friend who cooks and can give you some lessons. At the bare minimum, go to the web, bookstore, or library, and find some good recipes. Anyone can follow a recipe. In fact, there's all sorts of great recipes and cooking tips right here on Instructables!
I found that for me, I ended up making quite a few different types of vegetable soups and baking bread from scratch. Cooking can be quite enjoyable, and bread isn't hard, it just takes a little planning ahead.
Step 3: Dealing With Restaurants
Restaurants are tricky.
Rule # 1: Avoid all fast-food
Some of us eat more fast-food than others. It's really a bad habit more than anything. If you haven't already, watch the film SUPER-SIZE ME. That should help keep you away from Mickey D's for a while! There's a number of other great food films out there. Another one I liked was KING CORN.
Fast food is tricky too. I go to KFC about once a year. I happen to like their biscuits with honey on them. Good old honey. Nothing but 100% real honey. I looked at the honey packet last time I was there. It's now HONEY (big letters) flavored sauce (little letters.) Of course the other ingredients are corn syrups.
Rule #2: Go to Family restaurants where they actually MAKE the food.
An amazing number of restaurants don't actually MAKE food. They buy it through a food distributor such as Sysco, heat it up, and serve it to you. Not that that's a terrible thing, there is economy of scale to it. The trouble is that nobody even knows what's in it.
So, go support your LOCAL REAL restaurant. This is the place where the waitress will learn your name and remember how you take your coffee. They also don't mind special requests, and they make their own sauces.
My wife and I already went to that restaurant when we did go out. In fact, we even brought our own Tupperware. That's right, I know it sounds a little weird, but they have good food, and large portions. Dinner is big enough for supper and lunch the next day. If we asked them for a box, we would get two styrofoam containers that would spend one night in our refrigerator an all eternity in the landfill after that.
The first time or two that we brought our own takeout containers, we got the looks. The third time there, we forgot to bring them with and had to ask for a pair of "To Go boxes". Now the response was "What? You guys didn't bring your own?" You know you're at a family restaurant when the waitresses yell at you...
When I started bringing my own ketchup to the restaurant, they didn't bat an eyelash.
I happen to like french fries. Good hot ones, with a little salt, and ketchup. But nearly all ketchup (or catsup for people who like THAT stuff) uses corn syrup as the sweetener, including the one at the restaurant. You know the brand I'm talking about...
By the time the waitress brought my sandwich and fries, she already knew about my Lenten Experiment. "So, you won't be needing any ketchup with that, will you?" she said, snatching away the red bottle from our table. "No thanks," I said, pulling a bottle from under my coat, "I brought my own!"
They also have an excellent Gyro there. I checked on the special cucumber sauce. No corn syrup in there. How do they know? The waitress serving us is the person who makes it from scratch.
I'll also put take out, including "semi-prepared" like the "take-and-bake" pizza chains in the category of restaurants.
I do happen to like the take-and-bake pizzas, although I have recently tried some honest-to-goodness really made from scratch home pizzas lately. I did once convince the take and bake place to allow me to bring my own reusable pizza pan and had them make my pizza right on it. I was just a bit dismayed when they pulled out a crust, already on a paper pan and covered with plastic wrap, transferred it to my pan, and threw away the paper pan and plastic wrap!
I checked with them ahead of time, and had them check the ingredient list for their secret sauce. No corn syrup in there. I could keep getting pizzas from them.
Step 4: Soda, Soft-drinks, and Desserts
Soft-Drinks, Sodas, and Desserts!
I have a sweet tooth! How can I possibly live without these staples of the American Diet!!?!?
It IS possible. Here's a few tips.
No, it's not something the DEA is going to bust you for. Many grocery stores have an ethnic food aisle. Some of them will have Coca-Cola from Mexico. It comes in a cool, retro glass bottle. Wait a minute, that's not retro. It's just old! Down there, they return the bottles, wash them, and use them again. We used to do that. Up here now, we throw them in the recycling bin, melt them down, and make NEW bottles.
Mexican Coke has sugar in it instead of corn syrup. It taste different too. More sparkle-y.
Look around. There's actually a pretty good variety of sodas that have sugar instead of corn syrup in them. "Jaritos" brand is very good and comes in all sorts of fruit flavors. For a while there, Pepsi was even making "Throwback" sodas with sugar instead of corn syrup. It had more to do with the price of corn futures due to petroleum companies artificially inflating the prices to drive ethanol plants out of business (and them buying them up!) then it did with consumer demand. (That whole story is REALLY interesting. David Blume won an investigative journalism award over it.
In general, just giving up soda is a good idea. It's a whole lot of empty calories.
Also, why not try tea, coffee, beer, or wine. These are all beverages that have been around for centuries before the invention of corn syrup.
My alcoholic cocktail of choice happens to be the "Cuba Libre" - a Rum & Coke. I think I had just one of those during my original No More Corn Syrup experiment, made with a real sugar Coca-Cola. It was very good. It's funny how having just one of something you really like can make it that much better.
A margarita mixer can be made easily using "Simple Syrup" as a base. All that is is sugar dissolved in boiling water. Add some limes and tequila, shake with ice. Yum!
As far as desserts go, avoid the ones at restaurants. Even restaurants that do home-cooking usually farm out dessert. I did find that we have a local Gelato place, and the owner was very nice about reading ingredient lists to me.
The "Natural" brands of ice cream tend to have real sugar, whereas everything else doesn't
If all else fails, making your own desserts is a lot of fun!
Step 5: The Vanishing Trash
Trash Day - Lent 2009.
"Honey, when did you take out the trash?"
"What do you mean? There isn't any here. When did you take it out?"
"Why would I take it out!? That's YOUR job!"
"So what, you're saying somebody snuck in and took our our trash?"
That's when I realized the first truly bizzarre result of my experiment.
We didn't make trash.
There just wasn't any. I mean there was SOME of course, used tissues, odds and ends, you know, the typical stuff. But there was hardly any there at all. The compost bin was full. That had been getting taken out at least twice as often as before. There were cans and bottles in the recycling bin.
Huh. It turns out that foods with corn syrup are PROCESSED foods. Processed foods are PACKAGED foods. By eliminating corn-syrup-laden foods, we eliminated the MAJORITY of our kitchen garbage. (That's the main trash can of the house. We have several small waste paper baskets, and a trash can in the bathroom, but nearly everything is in the kitchen.)
Law of unintended consequences - not eating corn syrup keeps land-fills from filling up as fast!
Step 6: The Accidental Vegan
I like animals AND I also happen to be a meat eater. I am trying, in general, to eat less meat, and eat lower on the food chain. It makes sense both ethically and for personal heath.
I would find it very difficult to completely give up all animal products like milk, cheese, and honey.
That is why I was so shocked the day that I was an Accidental Vegan!
The day started out so normal. It was the weekend. No pressure to go anywhere, do anything. It was nice and sunny outside. I had been doing a lot of cooking lately. I seemed to have a knack for soups, stews, and bread. Nothing corn syrupy there.
Lunch usually is left-overs. We had some lettuce, so I made a salad. The black-bean soup turned out really good. But had now thickened up in the fridge. Oh well, I added some hot sauce and rice and decided it was Cajun food. I also had some fresh bread handy.
Lunch was pretty good. All actual wholesome food. Wait a minute.... Something is wrong here.... No meat? Not even a little bacon. Is this all vegetarian? Wait, I have bread, that always has butter or honey on it. NO - organic blueberry jam? Oh no, it can't be
I'm VEGAN! AAAAAAHAAAAHAHHHHHHH! (Shreiks in shock)
I used to have a theory that the more animals you crammed in a meal, the better it tastes (A Bacon-Cheeseburger beats a Cheese-burger beats a Hamburger.....)
I have a friend who earned the nickname "The Ark" because I once saw him eat two of each animal!
And here I am now ACCIDENTALLY eating VEGAN!?!?!?
For Lent, the tradition is to not eat meat. While that wasn't my goal, it still happened in a very round-about way.
Step 7: Now You Try It!
So what about you?
Are you up to the challenge? It means eating BETTER than you would. Feeling better than you would. It CAN be a challenge, as the industrial food system tries to CRAM us full of corn syrup. It has so much corn, it doesn't even know what else to do with it!
Learn to cook
Organics are your friends
You won't need as many trash bags
Your compost pile will be bigger
And you might, you just might, accidentally eat vegan.
And that's just what I found out. But what will YOU discover? That's for you to find out when YOU give up corn syrup!
Best of luck on your journey!
Questions? Comments? Leave them below!
(For more on my original No More Corn Syrup experiment, I have a few blog entries on it at my OLD blog in March 2009. For anything new this year, I'll post about it over at http://ecoprojecteer.net/