The Evils of Corn Syrup: How Food Writers Got It Wrong

My suspicions were further reified when a recent study critical of HFCS published by a team of Princeton researchers provoked a similar rush to judgment. The Princeton scientists reported that HFCS caused greater weight gain than sucrose (table sugar) when fed to rats, a finding that led the authors to suggest that HFCS was "an important factor in the obesity epidemic."

Grist.com wasted no time in headlining the study as a "breakthrough work on high-fructose corn syrup and weight gain." Laskawy declared that the debate over high fructose corn syrup "may be approaching a conclusive end." At organicauthority.com, Scott Shaffer called the study "the nail in the coffin for the unhealthy school lunch programs that fill our kids with high-fructose corn syrup."

The irony in this mad dash is that a smoking gun already exists to condemn HFCS as the embodiment of culinary evil.

Not until Marion Nestle, the noted NYU nutritionist, critically assessed the Princeton study did the feeding frenzy abate. "I'm skeptical," she decreed. "I don't think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats." Her evaluation, which would prove to be supported by other experts, revealed that the authors failed to account for how they measured calorie intake, that the results they found were inconsistent, and that the observed differences between sucrose and HFCS were "statistically insignificant." Exactly how the authors reached their conclusion, she added, "is beyond me."

Critics are still unpacking the Princeton study, so it would be unfair to say that it's been completely debunked. But when the cool skepticism of an authority such as Nestle (who is no advocate of big agriculture) stands in such sharp contrast to the wild enthusiasm of food activists, it's fair to suspect that, yet again, something else is driving the assessments of food writers besides a raging desire to get the science right.

The irony in this mad dash to find conclusive evidence of HFCS's unique contribution to obesity is that a smoking gun already exists to condemn HFCS as the embodiment of culinary evil: It's grossly subsidized. HFCS deserves to be in the crosshairs of public opinion not for its alleged link to obesity but due to the verifiable fact that it's part and parcel of an industry that benefits from shameless corporate welfare. In today's political climate, consumers are just as (if not more) likely to condemn bailouts and price supports as they are claims of unhealthiness.

Plus, food writers fed up with HFCS are, when you get right down to it, primarily fed up with corn. We need to therefore build on the pioneering work of Michael Pollan to show how corn subsidies have depressed the true cost of corn by almost 30 percent over the past decade or so. We need to show how this has led to the proliferation of cheap junk food, not to mention billions in profits for big food producers. We need to show how these subsidies have created the obesity epidemic. And we need to show how it's the artificially low price of HFCS, rather than HFCS itself, that's the ultimate outrage when it comes to the inequities of food and its impact on human health.

Such a focus would inspire critical new questions. Would the elimination of subsidies raise the cost of junk food? Would consumers react to higher-priced junk food by purchasing healthier food? Would pulling out the subsidy rug lead to collective weight loss? These questions remain open to debate. But until food writers and activists quit leveling charges they cannot adequately support (HFCS's obesity impact relative to other sweeteners) and start paying more attention to matters that couldn't be any less ambiguous (subsidies), we'll never know. In the end, I'd be thrilled to see the National Corn Refiners Association become less concerned with finding a new name for high-fructose corn syrup than with figuring out how to euphemize the word "subsidy."

Presented by

James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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