Stripped Carbs: The Emperor’s New Clothes

I promised a friend that I would write another post about stripped carbs and processed edibles. Sometimes stripped carbs are called simple carbs, but there’s nothing simple about them. Stripped carbs include white flour, white rice, corn starch, corn syrup, sugar, fruit juice, and beer. It’s not that you can’t eat them at all; it’s that Americans are drowning in them.

In nature, carbohydrates virtually always come with an intact fiber matrix. Whether fruit, legume, vegetable, whole grain, or even sugar, the quintessential stripped carb, stripped carbs start as an intact carb, such as dates, beets, sugar cane, or fruit. The fiber and germ are removed, or stripped, and all that’s left is white powder. It’s not a coincidence that white flour looks exactly like corn starch and powdered sugar. The processed edibles industry has removed most of the essential elements from the original foodstuff, and all that’s left is a pile of powder.

Here are some examples. White flour starts out as whole grains of wheat, with bran and germ intact. White rice is “polished,” meaning that it is stripped of its husk. Corn starch and corn syrup are derived from corn. Most sugar is extracted from sugar cane, less often from dates or beets. Fruit juice starts as fruit. I like to think of beer as “liquid bread.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the term “enriched” flour in an ingredient list. What does that mean? “Enriched” flour is stripped flour to which minerals and vitamins (mainly iron and B vitamins) have been added so as to prevent anemia and other nutritional deficiencies. How did we figure out that stripped carbs did not nourish the way intact grains do? The hard way — after a great many sick patients presented themselves for medical care. “Enriched” is the industry’s term, not mine. It would also be accurate to call it “stripped flour with B vitamins and iron, but still without the fiber or the oil-rich germ.”

You may have heard of “fortified” flour. “Fortified” flour is stripped flour to which folate has been added. Folate is one of the B vitamins. A deficiency of folate is the cause of a particular class of birth defects called neural tube defects, of which spina bifida is the best known. Beginning in the 1990’s, approximately 20 years after a causal link was first suspected between spina bifida and a folate deficiency, the U.S. Congress finally mandated that folate be added to flour. The word chosen to describe flour to which folate was added was “fortified.” And, yes, the prevalence of neural tube deficiencies fell after that. But fortified flour still contains no fiber or germ.

Shortly after rice stripped of its husk was first introduced into the food supply in Southeast Asia, a processed called “polishing,” a significant rise was noted in the numbers of deaths from a disease called beri-beri. Tens of thousands of people died. Beri-beri is caused by a deficiency of thiamine, which was, not surprisingly, present in the husks that had been removed. This is why white rice is now “enriched” with thiamine, among other micronutrients.

Corn starch and corn syrup are used extensively in the processed edibles industry. Actually, that’s an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that the processed edibles industry is virtually dependent on the presence of corn starch and syrup. Americans began to eat large amounts of corn starch and corn syrup in the 1970s, soon after the industry identified corn syrup as a significantly less costly alternative to sugar.

Everything is relative, however. What is less costly in one way turns out to be extremely expensive in another. Beginning in the 1970s, obesity rates in the U.S. began to soar. Whenever I travel overseas, I obsessively check ingredient lists on product packages on the grocery shelves. I have noticed that whereas virtually all American candy and baked items are made with corn syrup, the candy, cakes, and bread sold overseas are made not with corn syrup but rather with sugar. There is less obesity. The obesity epidemic is multifactorial, and not due simply to corn syrup. But it is a contributing factor.  

The American diet is packed with stripped carbs: Mini-frosto-hoho-choco’s for breakfast. Coffee-cake muffins. Single-serving yogurt with 4-5 teaspoons of corn syrup. Doughnuts, crackers, and brownies for snacks. Sandwiches for lunch, with corn chips. And then pasta for dinner. You’re eating stripped carbs all day. Am I saying you should never again eat anything sweet? No, absolutely not. Everyone should enjoy a treat now and then. Maybe it’s a cookie and milk every afternoon, or a slice of pie once a week. But that’s not what’s happening.

I don’t know exactly how much stripped carb you can tolerate. That depends entirely on you, and you’re going to have to figure it out. It depends on your metabolism, your genetics, your activity level, your stress levels. Which is better for you — leftovers or oatmeal? Which is better for your oatmeal — maple syrup, raisins, or peanut butter? You can figure this out.

Remember that it’s not carbohydrate per se that’s the problem. It’s stripped carb, and that’s something entirely different.



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