Here is an uncomfortable truth: You cannot completely rid your diet of artificial sweeteners. Sugar? Artificial. "Sugar in the Raw?" Don't let the raw-looking brown color decieve you. Maple syrup? Artificial. The highly-touted (and quite expensive) blue agave syrup? Artificial. Stevia? Don't make me laugh - it comes in packets, people. All of these things have to be chemically treated to become the product that lands on the shelf. They are processed in ways that nature never intended; if you can't pull it out of the ground and get the same sweetness, it's not natural.
Right now the focus is on high-fructose corn syrup. If you haven't heard, it's artificial, it's natural, it's worse than sugar, it's the same as sugar, it causes diabetes, it has no effect on diabetes - depending on whether you're reading sweetscam.com or sweetsurprise.com.
What are the facts right now?
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is chemically similar to other artificial sweeteners, and as such carries the same risk factors. There is no conclusive proof that HFCS is a sole contributor to diabetes, hormonal changes, or other ailments - at least, no more than can be said of sugar in general.
However, HFCS is used differently than most other sweeteners. HFCS is a preservative that adds shelf life to foods it is used in. It also can be used to replace up to a third of the white sugar content in foods. HFCS is used to create a "pleasing, golden-brown crust" on baked goods and provide a smooth-tasting vehicle for other chemical flavorings (i.e. "mouth feel"). A mixture of HFCS & water is typically sprayed on french fries before they are frozen to give that golden, crispy texture we've come to expect from our deep-fried foods. Because of the massive subsidies corn growers receive from the U.S. government, HFCS is an extremely cheap additive for extending food life, creating a visually pleasing product, increasing the flavor of other additives and in general making things taste a little bit "more" than they would otherwise.
Can you imagine eating a white, pasty McDonald's french fry, a bit mushy from being fried in oil? That's what you'd get if it wasn't sprayed with chemicals before it was flash-frozen, bagged, stored, shipped, stored and finally pulled to the fryer. It's unclear which is more disgusting - the "regular" fry or how much has to be done to keep the fries "fresh" before they actually make it to the plastic tray.
Americans in general eat too much sugar and caloric sweeteners. The average American eats about 22 teaspoons of sugar each day. That is roughly 350 calories, or one-fifth of overall calorie consumption, every single day. Much of that comes in the form of added sweeteners, and that is where HFCS becomes the real culprit - because it is in, almost literally, every processed food on the shelf.
How to reduce your consumption of HFCS
Go simple. This is the mantra for getting sugar out of your life. Other than fruit and honey, there is very little unprocessed food that contains an inordinate amount of sweetness. Base your meals around lean protein, whole, fresh vegetables and fruits, 100% whole, unprocessed grains and healthy fats. Get rid of the boxes and bottles, and make your own. Fresh mayonnaise and salad dressings are incredibly flavorful and simple to make; once you've whipped up some garlic aioli on your own, you'll never let Hellmann's cross your lips again.
Learn the code words for HFCS and other added sweeteners. Even if the packaging screams, "NO HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP", check the ingredient list. You will find things like "100% pure cane syrup" (which is the same thing as HFCS, simply sourced from sugarcane), "dextrin", "maltodextrin" and "modified corn starch" - all of which are additives that add viscosity, sweetness & calories.
Remember the above mention that HFCS/sweetners are in nearly everything packaged? It is shocking the places you can find these modified products: Stove Top stuffing mix, soups, cheese sauces, all bottled dressings, mayonnaises & ketchups, many mustards, processed meats and sour cream.
That said, the key is to pick and choose what you can make on your own, what you can live without and how much HFCS you're okay ingesting in a given day - because let's face it, there are few people out there with the time and resources to bake their own bread, make their own ketchup or ferment their own yogurt . It can be done, but to eliminate HFCS & other sweeteners from the diet is a process that requires attention and work. Being choosy about what you buy pre-made and what you make from source ingredients will put a large dent in that 19 teaspoons/day we're all reportedly eating.
3. Best the food makers at their own game. Since you can use 1/3 less sugar in most recipes without sacrificing texture, do it! Substitute unsweetened applesauce in recipes, make fruit purees (which is perfect for freezing fruit, in plain yogurt and as a topping) and make your own juices. This way you control the amount of sweetness you want, save calories and reduce your ingestion of "food-safe" chemicals. Try locally owned bakeries, pastry shops and co-ops - these places often do not have a need to extend their products' shelf life, and can tell you exactly what has gone into the food you're buying.
4. Give up that soda habit, why don't you. That "throwback" crap certainly isn't any better than the stuff next to it, and it's still loaded with sugar and unnatural flavorings.
5. Scale back those meals out. Restaurants, by design, need to have enough food on hand to feed hundreds of people for several days between truckload deliveries. Chain restaurants have an interest in making sure their food tastes the same from day to day and place to place, meaning their food is mass-produced, chemically treated and preserved for "freshness." Do you have to give up your weekly Domino's? If you want to avoid HFCS, you do. But it's all about moderation - if you're eating well the rest of the week (but those bran muffins from Starbucks, those are full of nasties), you can enjoy your favorite fast-food meal once in a while. Or turn over a new leaf and check out locally owned, locally-sourced restaurants in your area. Columbus is full of them!