Michael Pollan: High-Fructose Corn Syrup Not Necessarily Worse Than Sugar

When Michael Pollan talks about the food industry, people listen. As the author of best-selling books like In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, he wields huge influence among those who care about mindful eating, both in terms of health and sustainability. So his repeated condemnation of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as particularly harmful has helped damage the sweetener's reputation over the past few years.

Things have gotten so bad for HFCS that the corn industry is trying to change the name of the syrup to "corn sugar," provoking a lawsuit from the sugar industry.

But now Pollan is refining his stance. He was asked about the dangers of HFCS in a recent interview with the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and clarified his current thinking:

"I've done a lot to demonize it," he says. "And people took away the message that there was something intrinsically wrong with it. A lot of research says this isn't the case. But there is a problem with how much total sugar we consume." High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, so it traditionally was pumped into a lot of foods, including savory items.

"It shows the brilliance of the industry, which is always a couple of steps ahead of me," Pollan says. "They started giving products made of real sugar health claims and [are] trying to make sugar look good." And that is a problem.

In the same interview, he cites both the demonization of high-fructose corn syrup and the craze for gluten-free products as examples of the fadishness of nutritional thinking. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of high-fructose corn syrup. It's not like Pollan's encouraging people to run out and buy a case of Mountain Dew. But it does strike a blow to the argument that "real sugar" is vastly preferable to corn syrup.