Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What's In Those Bread Crumbs? Surprise: Corn Syrup

I'm one of those people you see standing in the supermarket aisle reading ingredients lists. It's a habit born of my many years writing stories about dangerous food additives and sweeteners as well as concern about my own health and need to avoid too much sugar and salt. 

But until recently I had never bothered to read the ingredients of packaged bread crumbs. Down the list--which is always arranged, by federal regulation, from most used ingredient to least--was high fructose corn syrup. Sweetener in my bread crumbs? Yes--and in the plain versions as well as the seasoned ones. 

High fructose corn syrup is not a natural product. It's created in food labs, has supplanted cane sugar as the dominant sweetener in American food, and reportedly has adverse effects on the human body, while contributing to the epidemic of obesity. Now, I've not evaluated these reports, but I've long held a firm belief in the health benefits of natural foods on the grounds that our bodies have evolved to deal with them. Not so for high fructose corn syrup, which was invented in the early 70s. (Here's a link to one site that discusses its health effects.)

I found the presence of corn syrup in the bread crumbs surprising until my old friend, Arthur Schwartz, prolific cook book author and radio personality, reminded me that the crumbs are made from standard American bread, which itself is sweetened to cater to American palates. That includes "good" brands like Pepperidge Farm whole-grain breads.

But Arthur being Arthur, it got him to thinking about how that corn syrup affected recipes calling for bread crumbs. So when my husband and I visited him recently and sat down to an eggplant appetizer, he told me that he had breaded the thick-sliced eggplant with homemade crumbs made from unsweetened bread. This had made it possible to bake the eggplant long enough to be tender without over-browning the crumbs. Had there been sweetener in the crumbs, they would have  caramelized quickly and been black by the time the eggplant was done. 

It's a small matter compared to so many larger issues. But if you, like me, try to avoid sweeteners in food that shouldn't have any, and high fructose corn syrup in particular, you'll need to make your own crumbs from bread you're sure hasn't been sweetened or find a source of unsweetened crumbs.  One choice is to get crumbs from a local bakery after asking whether they use sweetener in their bread.

Another is to make crumbs from crunchy-crusted long loaves of Italian or French bread that, if made according to traditional recipes, should be free of sweetener. But it's not always possible to be sure. The loaf of Italian bread in my kitchen right now came in a long paper bag that has no ingredients list. It should have one--again by federal regulation--but it doesn't. 

This, unfortunately, is the result of lax enforcement of basic consumer protection laws. City and local consumer protection agencies used to enforce a host of laws intended to help food shoppers know what they are buying and to pick the most economical brands. It seems almost quaint now, as we mostly ignore the small, everyday ways we get cheated in the marketplace. 

Coming back to the bread crumbs, they provide an example of how hard it is to avoid the ubiquitous presence of high fructose corn syrup in processed food. Our only defense is the ingredients list. So keep on reading!


Beth said...

I've literally just moved to the US from the UK and I think the bread here is horrible! It's so sweet! Can anyone tell me which brand or variety of sliced bread I can get that doesn't have syrup in it? The Pepperidge farm wholewheat loaf I have has got high fructose syrup, molasses AND honey! It's got butter in it too (?!), but that's a whole different story!


Anonymous said...

I don't know of a national brand of bread that has no corn syrup. If you live anywhere near a Whole Foods or Fairway Market, give them a try. Also, try health food stores and your local bakeries where you can ask about the ingredients.

I'm sure this situation is going to change--that corn syrup will get replaced. But I think the makers will still put too much sweetener in, regardless of type. Americans have just become accustomed to everything tasting sweet.