By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
High fructose corn syrup is back in the news this week, with the Corn Refiners Association asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be allowed to rename HFCS “corn sugar.”
The corn refiners have asked for this re-labeling because “…current labeling is confusing to American consumers” who now think that HFCS is worse for them than table sugar.
HFCS, the refiners maintain, is a natural product with a similar composition to table sugar, and no more responsible for the obesity epidemic than any other sweetener.
Is it true? The devil’s in the sticky details.
HFCS, that sugar substitute that crept into our salad dressings, snack crackers, sauces, sandwiches and sodas like a multi-headed hydra over the last 25 years has been on a journey that could serve as a metaphor for much that is wrong with our overly packaged food system. It sneaked in behind the scenes, much like CAFOs, reducing the quality of our food, in this case by ratcheting up the sugar content.
If the corn refiners seem behind the eight ball now, it could be their collusion with food companies to pack empty calories into all that pretty packaged food has something to do with our skepticism about their product.
In the early years, few knew this wholesale substitution had begun. Food companies, particularly soda companies, began the switch to HFCS in the 1980s. Shockingly, these food conglomerates weren’t trying to improve our health, but were looking out for their bottomline (our burgeoning bottoms come later in the story). High fructose corn syrup could be made from a heavily subsidized crop which Washington policy makers had decided should be THE crop to grow, being uninformed about the multitude of benefits — better soil, robust ecological systems, farmer control — to be gained from keeping diversity in the crop system. But that’s another story.
HFCS trimmed costs. It meant that companies didn’t have to import pricier cane sugar from the tropics or worry about international markets. They also didn’t worry much about mercury residue in the processing of HFCS. But that, too, is another story.
HFCS offered another benefit to food producers, it acted as a preservative in foods, increasing shelf life, arguably also helpful to consumers and retailers. Win-win?
Not so fast said an emerging collection of researchers. Studies began to highlight that fructose, which is about one-half of HFCS was metabolized differently than glucose.
These HFCS-damning studies implicated fructose in the obesity epidemic, identifying the high consumption of HFCS as a contributor to obesity and “metabolic syndrome” that constellation of health issues that puts people at greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attack.
But was HFCS syrup making us fat? Or were we simply over-consuming sweets with fructose, including surreptitiously sweetened convenience and fast foods?
Table sugar, it turns out, has nearly the same composition as HFCS. This part of the Corn Refiners contention is true. HFCS and table sugar (sucrose) are both about half fructose and half glucose. (Though there are variations, HFCS is about 55 percent fructose but a “super sweet” formulation that’s 90 percent fructose is used in low-calorie products so that a small amount can add a lot of sweet taste — and perhaps contribute to the problems dieters have with these products. Read on.)
The consensus emerged that overeating overall, and overeating sweets, were the big factors making us bigger. The complicating element: By the 1990’s to early 2000’s, HFCS had slipped into so many products, Americans were bingeing on it without realizing that everything from their pickles and catsup to their bread and Corn Flakes had been laced with HFCS.
The debate ballooned (as did our bellies). It was difficult to separate the role of our insatiable sweet tooth from our intake of the now ubiquitous HFCS. Theories were floated that HFCS might not be as satiating as regular sugar, and caused people to eat more. The studies were inconclusive. But sugary drinks were found to have that effect, and with most of them now containing HFCS, that no doubt contributed to puzzlement about this sweetener.
Researchers who looked closer at fructose found that it was a bad actor in the human body. High consumption of fructose lead to insulin resistance and other negative responses, according to a 2002 survey of studies. In that review, nutritionists at the University of California – Davis noted that dietary changes were fueling the diabetes epidemic:
“Along with an increase in total energy [translation: calories] consumption over the past few decades, there has been a shift in the types of nutrients consumed in the American diet. The consumption of fructose has increased, largely because of an increased consumption of soft drinks and many other beverages that are high in fructose and because of the consumption of foods such as breakfast cereals, baked goods, condiments, and prepared desserts sweetened with sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).”
In 2008, the American Dietetic Association called a time out to the HFCS wars, agreeing with the Corn Refiners Association that HFCS is “nutritionally equivalent” to table sugar. Eat a lot of these sugars, take your pick, and you’ll be flirting with obesity (who isn’t really so winsome when she flirts back).
Does that get the Corn Refiners Association off the hook? In my mind, not at all. They’re like the driver at a bank robbery, complicit in the heist, in this case, of our healthful food.
On the upside, the simmering debate over HFCS is one reason I read labels like a chef, which causes me to put down a lot of packaged foods I probably didn’t need anyway.
Besides, there’s still a cloud over HFCS. In March, researchers at Princeton University reported that lab rats given water sweetened with HFCS gained more weight than those whose water was sweetened with regular sugar, even though they were fed the same amount of calories.
The male rats, in particular, grew very large on the HFCS water and over several months showed “abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides,” results that mimic effects seen in humans.
“When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight,” said psychology professor Bart Hoebel in a statement issued after publication of the study in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.
Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction, speculates that HFCS processing may be to blame because it produces some “free” fructose molecule which are more readily absorbed than the “bound” fructose insucrose (regular sugar made from sugarcane or beets).
If Hoebel’s experiments are on track at all, there may be yet another sour turn in this sweet saga.
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