Recent public health debates over childhood obesity rates and fluoridating water overlook the smoking gun.

Parents have unwittingly accepted high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) into their children's lunch bags, school snacks, and drinks. The ubiquity of this sweetener will surprise even the most health-conscious parents. Labels on the front packaging such as '100 Percent Natural,' 'All Natural Ingredients,' 'Excellent Source of Whole Grains' and '99 Percent Fat Free' coexist with labels on the back packaging listing HFCS as a primary ingredient by weight or volume.

Our unwitting consumption of high fructose corn syrup starts at the breakfast table and continues throughout the day. That whole grain Orowheat 100 percent whole wheat toast has HFCS, as does the Smuckers 'all natural ingredients' Concord grape jelly on top. A 99 percent fat free Yoplait yogurt would seem a good option but HFCS is the fourth ingredient behind milk, sugar, and modified cornstarch. And what soccer mom hasn't bought the team Quaker or Nature Valley granola bars and a Capri Sun drink for snacks after the game? We'd like to feel good about providing 'all natural' snacks that contain 'no artificial ingredients or preservatives,' but we've just double dosed the team with HFCS.

The fact that our kids are ingesting so much of this sweetener comes at a time when parents and schools are struggling to create healthier food options. School districts can, and should, eliminate the obvious sources. No one would be surprised to read HFCS in the ingredients list on a soda label. But would we agree to allow it on our salads? There it is again, listed fourth by volume on the Wishbone Italian dressing label behind water, oil and vinegar. It's in the Heinz ketchup on the hamburgers and in the Seneca applesauce cup to the side. It's the primary ingredient in Kellogg's NutriGrain cereal bars.

Most culpable in the labeling and packaging of products is the US Department of Agriculture for allowing high fructose corn syrup to be considered a 'natural' ingredient. Consider the absurdity of Newman's Own Old Fashioned Roadside Virgin Lemonade. Its 'all natural ingredients' start with water and mix in high fructose corn syrup and sugar before getting to lemons somewhere down the list. Paul Newman can keep his company tagline -'Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good' - if he will first stop shamelessly exploiting the USDA loophole allowing HFCS in his 'all natural' products.

Local communities have shown the power to regulate public health concerns ahead of federal mandates. Restrictions of secondhand smoke in public buildings started as grassroots movements before becoming national initiatives. Recently, artery clogging transfats have been banned in local municipalities. Publicly held companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dunkin' Donuts have made adjustments as a result. High fructose corn syrup is flying under the radar because it can still hide behind the 'all natural' label. Our children's waistlines are expanding as quickly as the list of products containing HFCS. How long will we be able to accept this unwanted guest in our food pantries?

Beware the power of label reading soccer moms.

Carolyn J. Heymann is a resident of Lake Oswego.

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