Welcome to Cracked's Big Questions, where we try to explain things everyone may think they got a grasp on but have a couple of things slipping through their fingers. So, we're gonna look all of this stuff up, figure it out, and throw in some weird stuff we discovered along the way. So yeah… Junk food. We know it's bad for us, but we can't stop eating it. But how did we end up with so much of it? Why are there so many options and multiple flavors of cheap food that we know have the potential to slowly kill us? How did we get to be such picky eaters with incredibly low standards? There's obviously a lot to unpack, but we'll try to keep it brief just in case you're reading this while waiting in the drive-thru.

Like A Lot of Horrible Things, It All Started with Richard Nixon

In 1971, President Richard Nixon was running for re-election, and his poll numbers were absolutely dismal. The country was divided over the Vietnam War, inflation was kicking everyone's ass, and food prices were soaring. Nixon really needed to do something to help boost his popularity because he sure as hell wasn't gonna pull it off with charm or charisma.

Ollie Atkins, White House photographer/National Archives

Or raw, animal magnetism.

Nixon could've ended the Vietnam War or done something about inflation, but instead, he decided to tackle the food prices issue. One of the huge mitigating factors of high food prices was the high price of sugar. The reason sugar prices were so high was that those prices were strictly controlled, domestic growers were only allowed to produce so much of it each year, and any imported sugar was subject to high tariffs. So Nixon thought, just find a way to make sugar cheaper … Problem solved, right? Well, not so fast.

The first problem was that farmers didn't like Nixon. Given the historical perspective, who can blame them? So, Nixon hired a man who knew how to schmooze the farming industry's lobbyists, the unfortunately named Earl Butz, to be secretary of Agriculture. The second problem was they couldn't really increase the quotas on sugar. There was only so much farmland in the U.S. in the right climate zone to grow sugarcane. But what they could grow more of was corn. 

At the time, the government paid corn farmers specifically to not grow corn in an attempt to prevent an over-supply and to keep corn prices from getting too low. Butz decided to throw this idea out the window, and he encouraged farmers to start growing corn on an industrial scale. Corn could be used to make corn syrup, and while it wasn't as sweet as sugar, it could be used in food manufacturing as a sugar substitute.

Butz's decision, of course, caused a massive corn surplus, and the lower price of corn encouraged food manufacturers to figure out ways to use corn in everything. Cereal companies loved it. Corn oil became increasingly popular for cooking food. Livestock were being fed more and more corn, which wound up producing more meat. It was fattier meat with less protein, but still … More meat means cheaper meat.

Around this same time, Japanese scientists were working on an acid-enzyme process that would break down corn into high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). They didn't invent the process; they just figured out a way to do it on a mass-production scale. HFCS was far sweeter than regular corn syrup, and that made it a more attractive option for food manufacturers as a sugar substitute. 

Earl Butz was all over this idea. We had more corn than we knew what to do with, and this new process made HFCS far cheaper to produce than sugar, so this new sweetener took off and started driving down food prices even further. Good news for corn farmers because they were making more money. Good news for Nixon, who got those farmers to vote for him and win re-election. Bad news for the following 50 years of health statistics.

Why Is Sugar the Bad Guy Here?

High-fructose corn syrup certainly gets a ton of the blame for Americans' addiction to sugar. Food manufacturers put that stuff in just about everything now, but we also have to give the Best Supporting Asshole award to the marketing and advertising industries. Thanks to advertising, we've been conditioned to think some pretty unhealthy foods are a healthier alternative. They may be labeled low-fat, non-GMO, gluten-free, all-natural, etc., but they might also be capital-L Looooooooaded with sugar. Fruit juices, granola bars, flavored oatmeal, canned fruit, nutritional shakes; even when we decide to eat a salad for lunch, we might be drenching it in salad dressing that has a higher sugar content than those donuts we had for breakfast.

Now, it's important to understand there are three kinds of sugar in the foods we eat: Glucose, fructose, and sucrose. 

Glucose is a monosaccharide, or simple sugar, and is the least sweet of the three. It's most commonly found in starchy foods like beans, rice, pasta, etc. Glucose is the sugar that our bodies are best programmed to process into energy. It gets absorbed through the lining of your small intestine and delivered to the bloodstream, and that stimulates the production of insulin so the sugar can enter your cells. 

People with Type I Diabetes don't produce any insulin (or not enough) to handle the amount of glucose in their system. So, they each have to inject insulin to keep their glucose levels in check. Type II diabetics don't make enough insulin, and this can be managed with careful lifestyle choices, but they might also have to inject insulin if things get too bad. People with hypoglycemia have too much insulin in their systems, so they have to maintain a regular flow of glucose to keep themselves from crashing. Think of insulin as the Avengers, glucose is any cosmic threat to life as we know it, and healthy blood sugar levels are profits. Infinity War is Type I diabetes, Endgame is Type II, and hypoglycemia is every MCU film after that. 

Maridav/Shutterstock

Reenactment of the author crafting that analogy.

Fructose is also a simple sugar and can commonly be found in fruit and honey. While it is the sweetest of the three, it has a smaller immediate effect on your blood sugar. It also gets absorbed through the small intestine, albeit not as easily as glucose does, but your liver has to convert it into glucose. Your body processes fructose much like it does alcohol. Fructose taking the scenic route through the liver means that sugar gets dispersed to your cells at a slower pace and over a longer period of time. Unlike alcohol, fructose is far less likely to make you think that your ex would totally appreciate getting a text at 3 am.

Sucrose, also referred to as table sugar, is a disaccharide. It's one part glucose and one part fructose, just the perfect balance of each for the human body to handle them. Enzymes in your mouth break it apart into glucose and fructose; the glucose helps your small intestine better absorb the fructose, and your body processes each accordingly. 

HFCS is typically between 42-55% fructose (with some sodas using up to 65%), and the rest being glucose and water, so the balance is thrown off quite a bit. With more of that fructose going through your liver, the more of that sugar will get stored away as fat, which leads to obesity, heart disease, lung problems, Type II Diabetes, and everything else on the poor health bingo card. 

So, when someone tells you that a product that uses real sugar is better than one with HFCS, that's like saying a minefield is safer than a field of bear traps: If you're not paying close enough attention to what you're doing, you risk losing a foot either way.

Some Companies Were Really Sneaky About Switching Over

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical whenever a popular product makes even a tiny change in their formula. Sometimes the change is a good thing, like when the FDA forced the makers of alcoholic energy drink Four Loko to take out the caffeine, guarana, and taurine from their formula because it turns out being blackout drunk and feeling like you can phase-shift at the same time was not such a great idea after all.

Max Kegfire/Shutterstock

“Fine! Take my keys! I’ll just teleport home!”

But with high-fructose corn syrup being a much cheaper alternative to sugar, most food manufacturers switched to this new sweetener without really telling anyone. They just crossed their fingers and hoped it triggered everyone's dopamine receptors just enough that they wouldn't notice. But some companies knew their customers had noticed, so they decided to take a different approach.

In 1985, Coca-Cola was seeing a dip in sales, so to try to revitalize the brand they announced that they would be discontinuing their original formula and releasing New Coke in its place. This new version would be much sweeter, and their focus groups actually preferred it over original Coke in blind taste tests. And even though New Coke was in most respects a superior product, consumers hated it. Not because of the taste, but because it wasn't the Coke they knew and loved. The product's release had a real "C'mon, give your new stepdad a chance." kinda energy. Unfortunately, that was not their only misstep with that product, in hindsight:

So, customers started hoarding as much of the old formula Coke as they could find in stores. And how long do you think it would take for those die-hard Coke fans to savor that last taste of their favorite soda? Maybe about two, two and a half months? Well, 79 days after the release of New Coke, Coca-Cola announced that they would be bringing back the old formula and sell it under the new title of Coca-Cola Classic. 

The urban legend is that Coca-Cola used this gap as a ruse to switch the formula over from sugar to HFCS, but the truth is they had been sneaking HFCS into the formula for five years at that point. They had actually been using HFCS exclusively in the formula for a year prior to the New Coke rollout. By accidentally creating a consumer panic that Old Coke would be gone forever, they inadvertently gaslit consumers into being thankful to have a version of Coke that had already been changed back in their lives. 

Pretty toxic behavior, but given that the very first formula of Coca-Cola had cocaine mixed with alcohol, maybe high-fructose corn syrup isn't that egregious when you look at the big picture.

The Cycle May Be Repeating Itself

Look at the list of ingredients of any processed food. Several items on that list, especially the ones you cannot pronounce, are usually there for the same reason: they was cheap. And food manufacturers employ a ton of people to make sure they stay that way.

Most importantly, they fund a ton of scientific research to figure out how to make new preservatives, sweeteners, food colorings, enzymes, etc., that might help make things even cheaper. Are these new innovations safe for consumers? Eh. Just look at Lay's WOW potato chips back in the 90s. These "healthier" chips were cooked using Olestra, a new fat substitute that gave food that delicious fatty flavor we love without the added calories of traditional fats. Sounds great, right?

Well, what they desperately tried to hide in the fine print was that Olestra was also very difficult for the human body to digest. There weren't fewer calories in Olestra per se. They were still there; they were just locked in a synthetic fat blob that your body couldn't break down. Reports of abdominal cramps and leakage after ingesting the stuff were pretty common. And from my own personal experience, it was an understatement. Olestra beat up my GI tract like I owed it money. And despite problems like this, it still took 20 years for Olestra to start being phased out.

PrinceOfLove/Shutterstock

Phased out of the market, that is.  That stuff was ready to come out of your body while you were still chewing.

But whenever food prices are on the rise, like they are right now, with food manufacturers looking to save their profit margins and politicians trying to save their poll numbers, we run the risk that they're gonna try to find the quickest, easiest, and cheapest solutions to the problem … again. We might end up with another high-fructose corn syrup, or we might be entering the first act of Soylent Green. 

All we can do as consumers is be more aware of the ingredients we're putting into our body, but simply having that information readily available is no guarantee that it'll change anyone's behavior. Hell, as I write this article, I have 30 tabs open with articles about why junk food is bad for me, but that hasn't prevented me from hoovering a family-size bag of Doritos while I work. There is currently a Dorito crumb lodged under the X key on my keyboard, which means junk food is literally making my life harder because I've had to copy/paste every X in this piece over from one of the news articles I found about Nixon. And just like every other problem America has with junk food, I have elected to ignore it.

Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.

Top image: Beats1/Shutterstock

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