'High-Fructose' Just Sounds Bad



Anna Lappé's good piece this morning keeps alive the current debate over the corn industry's attempts to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup after it has been vilified by various activists. The claim, as it has long been, is that sugar derived from corn has the same effect on the body as plain table sugar from beets or cane, despite the slightly higher proportion of fructose.

I wrote about the controversy four years ago, when the war on HFCS was taking on real force:

The dramatic rise in obesity parallels the takeover, in the 1980s, of high-fructose corn syrup from cane and beet sugars. Only in the 1970s did researchers succeed in converting cornstarch to syrup, at a time when the federal government was increasing its already heavy subsidies for corn farmers. The result was that conglomerates could sell truckloads of the new sweetener for less than they cost to produce. The food industry took high-fructose corn syrup as a margin-increasing godsend, and used it to put the sweet into sweet-and-sour ketchup, make nonfat yogurt palatable, and give semi-eternal shelf life to oddly soft, plastic-packaged bread...

My own case against high-fructose corn syrup is that what little flavor it has is strangely violent: Drinks sweetened with corn syrup taste like only their usually artificial flavorings, and the effect is a clobbering sweetness, as if someone had come up behind you, held your nose, and poured syrup down your throat.

As Lappé points out with new and good links, the party line has shifted pretty definitively: sugar is bad; sugary soft drinks are too cheap and too available; the focus should be on cutting sugar consumption, period, whether through sugar taxes, as many health officials, including my own spouse, have called for and Nestle recently exhorted "only you" to call for.

I'm stubborn, though. I'm glad that HFCS has been successfully vilified, and even if consumers are avoiding it out of ignorance—as the Corn Refiners Associations is claiming in commercials, audio of which you can hear on this report from Weekend All Things Considered—their avoidance could mean they eat less "liquid candy," as Marion was one of the first to call soda. And having heard Barry Popkin, of the University of North Carolina, posit that sugar-sweetened beverages don't send the same satiety signals that other foods with equivalent calories do and that HFCS might be involved in that delay (link to articles by him here), I remain convinced that the less HFCS there is in the diet, the better. On that the jury is out, although studies in rats, still ongoing, suggest that HFCS consumption is indeed linked to higher rates of obesity than sucrose.

This is just a matter of branding, and I'm for picking the brand
that sounds least innocuous.

And just this morning Boston joined a growing number of cities to limit sales of soda in public buildings. Here's where accusations of nanny-state meddling get really loud: As Barbara Ferrer, director of the city's Public Health Commission, points out, tobacco is one thing—always harmful, to people who smoke and people around them—but sugary drinks are another.

We'll see how far the city, and many others, get. But as for "corn sugar," I'm with Lappé on this, even if wiser, cooler heads (I speak for myself!) like Nestle and Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and one of the very first to cry out against liquid candy, tell us to shift our focus squarely to added sugar in any form.This is just a matter of branding, and I'm for picking the brand that sounds least innocuous. "High-fructose corn syrup" sounds like it's worse for you than "table sugar" or even "sucrose" or "glucose," which sound like chemical formulas. "High-fructose corn syrup" does sound like syrup poured into your soda and into your body—or, as I wrote, like somebody snuck up behind you and poured something down your throat.