High Fructose Corn Syrup: How Sweet It Is?

An ad campaign by the Corn Refiners Association is designed to make viewers question the now-common belief that high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) is unhealthy. It's effective PR, but is it accurate?
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Crossposted with www.theGreenGrok.

High fructose corn syrup: just sugars, right? Technically yes, but ...

Lately, corn syrup has gotten a bad name. With obesity increasing in the United States, some foodies (see here and here) have opined that federal farm policy and specifically huge subsidies given to American corn growers may be a root cause.

These subsidies make prices for corn products artificially low and as a result they show up in a dizzying array of the processed foods we eat. Chief among the corn additives is high fructose corn syrup, which, for good or bad, is considerably cheaper than sugar and so has become America's sweetener of choice. Don't take my word for it -- just read the labels on the cans and food packages in your pantry.

Concerns about the corn syrup have begun to gain traction. Some companies are even dumping high fructose corn syrup in favor of old-fashioned sugar. More and more shoppers seem to be avoiding foods with the syrup, and places like New York are considering adding a tax on sweetened soda.

Corn Refiners Trade Group Strikes Back

To counter this bad publicity (some might say bad rap), the Corn Refiners Association -- a DC-based trade group -- has launched a new campaign, the Sweet Surprise, whose messaging includes the lament that:

"High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has gotten a great deal of media attention. Unfortunately, many stories about the dangers of HFCS have reported information that lacks scientific merit leaving consumers confused about what is fact and what is not."

And to make sure that American consumers get the message, the trade association has a TV ad campaign. In case you haven't seen them, you can watch them here, here, and here.

They're really quite brilliant. In each one a soon-to-be-embarrassed busybody-type approaches a happy, sharp-witted but kind, corn-syrup-consuming person and warns "you know what they say about corn syrup." But when challenged, the busybody cannot articulate anything wrong about corn syrup. The implication being: what a mindless dork. In fact in one of the ads, the busybody, in this case an older brother, is actually called a "dork." The dork -- I mean busybody is then set straight with these facts:

  • It's natural -- made from corn.
  • It's basically made of the same sugars (fructose and glucose) as table sugar and is metabolized in the body like sugar.
  • It's fine when consumed in moderation.

To back up its claims, the trade association links to a press release [pdf] from the American Medical Association (AMA) and a short statement [pdf] from the American Dietetic Association.

Though I couldn't find either document on their respective sites, I did find a related, more equivocal statement [pdf] on the AMA site:

"At the present time, there is insufficient evidence that HFCS is more likely to contribute to adverse health outcomes than sucrose or any other caloric sweetener. ... More information is needed to clarify the impact of HFCS and other sweeteners on health."

The case, the report suggests, is not quite fully closed. The operative point being the need for more data and more experimental studies. Well, one such study is now coming to light.

Research: High Fructose Corn Syrup More Fattening Than Sugar

The paper was published in Pharmocology, Biochemistry and Behavoir and is authored by Miriam E. Bocarsly of Princeton University and colleagues. Over a course of eight weeks, the researchers tested male rats given different feeding regimens:

  1. 12 hours/day of 8 percent high fructose corn syrup with rodent chow,
  2. 12 hours/day of 10 percent sucrose with rodent chow,
  3. 24 hours/day high fructose corn syrup with rodent chow,
  4. rodent chow alone.

They found that the "rats with 12-h access to HFCS gained significantly more body weight than animals given equal access to 10% sucrose, even though they consumed the same number of total calories, but fewer calories from HFCS than sucrose."

Findings of the long-term research weren't all that different: Over roughly half a year, both male and female rats that had access to the corn syrup "gained significantly more body weight than control groups."

And the bad news didn't stop there. The researchers write that the additional body weight with high fructose corn syrup "was accompanied by an increase in adipose fat, notably in the abdominal region, and elevated circulating triglyceride levels."

Now, one shouldn't get too carried away about the Bocarsly study. The authors' methods and results have been criticized (see here for example). And don't forget that we're talking about an experiment using rats, and people, at least for the most part, are not rats.

What we really need is an experiment on humans, right? Funny you should ask.

Human Experiments With Corn Syrup Ongoing and Not Clinical

We already have a human experiment. It's long-term, and it includes almost the entire population of the United States. Not convinced? Consider these statistics.

Percentage of high fructose corn syrup in Americans' daily caloric intake: 7

Percentage of U.S. caloric sweeteners made from high-fructose corn syrup: ~40

Year [pdf] high fructose corn syrup became available in the U.S. food supply: 1967

How much U.S. consumption of high fructose corn syrup rose between 1970 and 1990: 1,000%

Percentage of obese Americans, 1960-1962: 13.4

Percentage of obese Americans in 2005-2006: 35.1

Approximate number of obese Americans, 2007-2008: 1 in 3

In 2006, how many U.S. government subsidies went to corn: $4,920,813,719

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