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

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Last week the Corn Refiners Association—tired of being seen as enemy number one in the war on obesity—filed a petition with the FDA to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to "corn sugar." The drumbeat of mockery from food purists, as you might imagine, began in earnest. Mary Elizabeth Williams wondered in Salon.com, "Who'd have thought the day would come when anything not a stripper or a Pomeranian would actually want to be called sugar?" Pretty funny.

Less amusing, though, is the science behind the claim that HFSC is a unique contributor to obesity. We can ridicule the Corn Refiners Association's image overhaul till the corn-fed cows come home but, according to studies published in leading journals, considerable evidence suggests that HFCS is being blamed for the expansion of the American gut with data that is, at best, inconclusive.

In 2008 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in a study comparing HFCS and sucrose, reported that "sucrose and HFCS do not have substantially different short-term endocrine/metabolic effects." A year later an article published in the Journal of Nutrition explained that "the data suggest that HFCS yields similar metabolic responses to other caloric sweeteners such as sucrose." Compared to fructose-based sweeteners, HFCS led to increases in triglycerides that were roughly equivalent. In his assessment of the relative dangers of HFCS, Dr. Jim Laidler wrote last month (in the well regarded site Science-Based Medicine) that "the data suggest that the best choice is to reduce intake of all sweeteners containing fructose," including table sugar, honey, and agave syrup. "Sugar is sugar," the corn lobby recently declared, and while our impulse might be to scoff at such a convenient simplification, the leading research suggests that—at least with respect to obesity—it might be right.

Could Big Corn be pressured to rebrand because of the skewed assessments of food writers?

Another charge leveled at HFCS is that, unlike natural sweeteners, it delays satiety and, due to its enhanced sweetness, encourages excessive consumption. But here, too, the evidence is shaky. In 2007 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study comparing the relative impact of sucrose-based and HFCS-based soft drinks on human taste. The authors "found no difference between sucrose- and HFCS-sweetened colas in perceived sweetness, hunger, satiety profiles, or energy intakes." In 2009 an article published in the Journal of Nutrition cited the satiety study to highlight the "misconception that HFCS has a unique and substantive responsibility for the current obesity crisis." The authors added that "inaccurate information from ostensibly reliable sources" as well as many other factors "have misled the uninformed."

All of this makes me wonder: Could it be that Big Corn is being pressured to rebrand not due to an abundance of hard evidence that HFCS is an unusually dangerous sweetener, but rather because of the skewed assessments of food writers who have set out to deem HFCS the sole harbinger of civilization's decline into epidemical obesity?

To appreciate exactly how the media has been less than true to the science of HFCS and obesity, begin with the December 13, 2009 issue of the London Times. In it, Lois Rogers summarized a University of California study that evaluated the impact of fructose on obesity. She quoted the lead scientist as saying, "This is first evidence we have that fructose increases diabetes and heart disease independently of causing simple weight gain." Put simply, fructose—which is simple fruit sugar—can be bad for us.


MORE ON CORN SYRUP:
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But Rogers, as Dan Mitchell reported in Slate, somehow got it in her head that fructose and high-fructose corn syrup were the same thing. Here's her lead: "Scientists have proved for the first time that a cheap form of sugar used in thousands of food products and soft drinks [that is, HFCS] can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis."

This viral sentence—one that should have referred to fructose—infected the entire article. Unsuspecting readers were led to believe that fructose was a sweetener solely derived from corn and, more alarmingly, that it was interchangeable with HFCS. The scientist quoted in the piece later remarked that "almost every sentence in the article contained at least one inaccurate statement."

The article, of course, proliferated. Two days after the Times piece ran, Tom Laskawy, writing for the popular environmental website Grist.com, rehashed it. High-fructose corn syrup, he began, was "fueling the obesity crisis." He then replicated the same errors that marred Rogers' debacle. Grist admirably rectified the article's mistakes, but the writer remained petulantly defiant. He responded to the revelation of the Times's inaccuracy in less than humble terms: "Oh, and in case anyone from the Times of London is reading this, if you think I will ever link to or quote from one of your articles again, then you've been drinking too much of the Kool-Aid that your boss Rupert Murdoch hands out."

Such a reaction is telling. At the least it suggests that ulterior motives are at work when it comes to writing about HFCS and obesity. And indeed, while I cannot prove it, my strong sense is that food writers are allowing their smoldering disdain for industrial food to undermine the cool-headedness required to accurately report scientific information relevant to it.

NEXT: Another questionable study, and how focusing on science distracts us from the more important problem

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."

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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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