contributed by Lazslo Pentek

I am the owner of Hex Apiaries in Arlington, Virginia, where I raise honeybees and harvest honey using no chemical pesticides, or antibiotics. I’m writing to address something you said in your e-zine. It concerns this question and answer:

“In last week’s ezine, you talked about drinks made with fructose, but you didn’t mention fruit; isn’t that where fructose comes from?
Yes, but fruits contain so many other important nutrients that we recommend getting at least five servings per day . . .”

In fact most fructose in “foods” [processed foods] is not from “fruit” at all, but from added “sweeteners” like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is artificially manufactured from corn starch – not extracted from fruits, per se. So while there is fructose in fruit, and whole fruit is healthy to eat in a proper diet, most fructose does not come from fruit but a chemical process that begins with corn starch, and HFCS is not a healthful thing to include in ones regular diet. The problem is that today Americans consume more HFCS than sugar.

The process for making the sweetener HFCS out of corn was developed in the 1970s. Use of HFCS grew rapidly, from less than three million short tons in 1980 to almost 8 million short tons in 1995. During the late 1990s, use of sugar actually declined as it was eclipsed by HFCS.

HFCS is produced by processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose. Three different enzymes are needed to break down cornstarch, which is composed of chains of glucose molecules of almost infinite length, into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.

First, cornstarch is treated with alpha-amylase to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Alpha-amylase is industrially produced by a bacterium, usually Bacillus sp. It is purified and then shipped to HFCS manufacturers.

Next, an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose. Unlike alpha-amylase, glucoamylase is produced by Aspergillus, a fungus, in a fermentation vat. [I once wrote an article about this for “The Potomac Sporophore”, the newsletter for the Mycological Association of Washington, D.C.]

The third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, converts glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in. While alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are added directly to the slurry, pricey glucose-isomerase is packed into columns and the sugar mixture is then passed over it. Inexpensive alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are used only once, glucose-isomerase is reused until it loses most of its activity.

There are two more steps involved. First is a liquid chromatography step that takes the mixture to 90 percent fructose. Finally, this is back-blended with the original mixture to yield a final concentration of about 55 percent fructose-what the industry calls high fructose corn syrup. The purpose for this blend id that HFCS has the same “sweetness” as an equal amount of sucrose from cane or beet sugar. HFCS is cheaper than sugar. It is also very easy to transport which translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers.

The development of the HFCS process came at an opportune time for corn growers. Refinements of the partial hydrogenation process had made it possible to get “better” shortenings and margarines out of soybeans than out of corn. HFCS filled a void as demand for corn oil margarine declined. Lysine, an amino acid, can be produced from the corn residue after the glucose is removed. Basically food conglomerates break down commodities into their basic components, and then put them back together again as processed food.

Today HFCS is used to sweeten jams, condiments like ketchup, and soft drinks. It is also a favorite ingredient in many so-called health foods. Four companies control 85 percent of the $2.6 billion business-Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC International. In the mid-1990s, ADM was the object of an FBI probe into price fixing of three products-HFCS, citric acid and lysine-and consumers. Allegations of corporate manipulation still abound.

Two of the enzymes used, alpha-amylase and glucose-isomerase, are genetically modified to make them more stable. Enzymes are large proteins and through genetic modification specific amino acids in the enzymes are changed or replaced so the enzyme’s “backbone” won’t break down or unfold. This allows the industry to get the enzymes to higher temperatures before they become unstable.

Many consumers trying to avoid genetically modified foods do not know to avoid HFCS. It is very likely made from genetically modified corn and then it is processed with genetically modified enzymes. Moreover many consumers think that because it contains “fructose”-which they associate with fruit, which is a natural food-that it is healthier than sugar. A team of investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that is not true.

Sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. When sugar is given to rats in high amounts, the rats develop multiple health problems, especially when the rats were deficient in certain nutrients, such as copper. The researchers wanted to know whether it was the fructose or the glucose moiety that was causing the problems. So they repeated their studies with two groups of rats, one given high amounts of glucose and one given high amounts of fructose. The glucose group was unaffected but the fructose group had disastrous results. The male rats did not reach adulthood. They had anemia, high cholesterol and heart hypertrophy-that means that their hearts enlarged until they exploded. They also had delayed testicular development. Dr. Field explains that fructose in combination with copper deficiency in the growing animal interferes with collagen production. (Copper deficiency, by the way, is widespread in America.) In a nutshell, the little bodies of the rats just fell apart. The females were not so affected, but they were unable to produce live young.

According to Dr. Field, all fructose must be metabolized in the liver. The livers of the rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic.” HFCS contains more fructose than sugar and this fructose is more immediately available because it is not bound up in sucrose. Unfortunately HFCS is used in many products aimed at children.

I happen to be a local beekeeper in the Washington D.C. Metro area. When bees are low on food reserves during a dearth beekeepers feed them syrup (sugar water) we mix ourselves. Some especially, larger commercial operations, however, also use liquid HFCS. [I don’t]. Using just HFCS can make the honeybees sick.

On another note related to sweeteners, the beekeeping industry has been involved in some shocking scandals and dangerous practices in the past few years:

First, honey contaminated with Chloramphenicol was imported from China into Canada then later it was also imported into the US. The tainted honey in Canada was interdicted and products were recalled before they could be sold on store shelves and hurt anyone. The incident seemed to be well publicized there. In the US the tainted honey was quarantined (with labels) at a warehouse in Houston (Hoyt’s Honey) but was used anyway and the contaminated Chinese honey was used in food products including products sold by Sara Lee, Smuckers, and even packed into individual servings for the Ritz Carlton Hotel chain. None of the products were re-called despite officials knowing of the quarantined honey use and the risk to consumers. The incident seemed to make the beekeeping industry press, but not the general media. Tell me how many doctors in the US faced with a patient showing symptoms of aseptic anemia would know that honey or products containing honey as an ingredient could be the cause?

Worse still large amounts went undestroyed and were shipped back to China, where they were transshipped through Australia and other countries and relabeled as from that country of origin. Then a “filtration” process in which the Chloramphenicol tainted honey was “cleansed” as created, the result combined with other sweeteners to further dilute the contamination level is sold under the name “ultra-filtered honey”.

Second honey exported from Argentina was contaminated with Nitrofurane. Some problem different contaminant, and country of origin. Need I say more?

Third and most recently, around late last year, beekeepers in a Western state were caught illegally using Sodium Cyanide [YES! Sodium Cyanide] to fumigate bee equipment when a group of beekeepers that purchased the chemical in bulk lost barrels off the back of a truck used to transport the poison in bulk. In fact the practice may be far more widespread than originally thought. The current issue of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association newsletter warns beekeepers, in an article by Dr. Rick Fell an entomologist at VA Tech, to refrain from this practice as it is illegal.

The bigger problem is that many commercial beekeepers have quit the industry or have gone bankrupt due to the pressure on the bee health and associated high winter hive losses (as high as 80% in whole regions) from a combination of:

1. A host of various bee diseases: (caused by various viruses, bacterium, or protozoa),

2. Pests: notably the tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) and especially the varroa mite (v. Jacobsoni, and v. destructor) the latter of which it is thought, spreads disease in hives while directly killing adults by sucking honeybee “blood” (hemolymph) and brood alike (reproducing in cells of developing bee brood).

3. Chemicals: particularly pesticides applied in (yes directly inside the hive!), on, or around the hive used to “control” the bee pests, and various antibiotics used to “treat” the bee diseases. (In 2003 the European Union banned all US hive products because they did not meet their minimum standards for chemical residuals. This did not hurt the industry too much since about half of the honey consumed in the US comes from imports).

Most recently, pests such as the African Small Hive Beetle have spread throughout the US. If not this African beetle, the next pest or pathogen may well break the industry entirely (the proverbial straw on the camels back). During the last twenty years or so this onslaught has resulted in essentially the eradication of all feral hives in the US, and the decimation of managed hives. In Virginia for example, the number of managed hives has been reduced by about half.

Last year it was reported that the almond growers could have hired on another 1 million honeybee hives for pollination had the hives been available. News reports stated that Maryland had only four commercial beekeepers left, I believe all over 65 years of age.

Indeed I became a beekeeper because I could not find a beekeeper that did not use pesticides, antibiotics or other chemicals in their operation. The chemical pesticides currently in use including Tau-fluvalinate and Coumaphos were approved under EPA Section 18 “Emergency” rules and the mites have become “resistant” to them when used singly or in tandem. This is they no longer work with the same level of efficacy, if at all.

So-called “Organic” honey can be produced using Formic Acid or Oxalic acid as a pesticide. Both are vaporized into the hive, and the beekeeper can be exposed to the substances. Formic Acid recently got Section 18 emergency EPA approval by beekeepers in Virginia and Maryland.

When speaking of sweeteners, all is not as “sweet” as one might imagine. I just spoke at an exhibit on honey and beekeeping for the Smithsonian FolkLife Festival and was surprised at how little the average person seems to know about sugar, honey, HFCS, where their food comes from, pollination and even the basic difference between a bee and a wasp!

(Submitted by Lazslo Pentak, July 2005)