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Is the Tide Turning on High Fructose Corn Syrup?

For the past four years, since the publication of compelling research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noting that an uptick in American obesity had coincided with the introduction and growing use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the late 1970s, HFCS has been demonized by those in the nutritional know.

But as I reported here in September, the case against HFCS has weakened in recent years as scientists and organizations -- including the American Medical Association in June -- have taken a closer, and more clinical, look at how the sweetener is metabolized by the body and to what extent it is to blame for our collective overweight.

Now comes the publication this month, again in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, of a suite of studies (some involving scientists who participated in the original research) that together suggest HFCS is no worse for us than any other caloric sweetener. Take that, organic honey!

We in the public could be justified in feeling miffed: Why did we expend all that worry about HFCS? And what's with these scientists, anyway? Why can't they make up their minds?

For answers, I turned to Roger Clemens, a food scientist in the University of Southern California's Department of Pharmacy and a spokesperson for the American Society for Nutrition (which publishes the journal). He reminded me that the kind of observational, epidemiological research that informed the first study (conducted by a team led by George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University and published in 2004) didn't set out to deliver the last word on HCFS, but rather to raise a question for further exploration. When that further research was done, through hands-on, clinical studies, and when the body of research was reviewed by panels of experts over the past year, it appeared that the initial hypothesis wasn't on target.

But Clemens notes that we probably wouldn't know as much about HFCS and its effects on our bodies as we do now had George Bray not raised the question for scientists to pursue.

This is an issue that health journalists grapple with all the time -- or at least we should be grappling. How much weight should a new finding be given, particularly if it seems groundbreaking, startling, or otherwise life-altering? It takes restraint and judgment to not leap on every new revelation as if it were a new truth. But that's our job, and many of us should be doing it better.

In the meantime, here's Roger Clemens's word on HFCS: It appears to be safe and not to disrupt our metabolic processes. And when it comes to causing overweight and obesity, he says, "At the end of the day, it's calories that count, not high fructose corn syrup."

Since HFCS is in practically every processed food we eat, even stuff that's not overtly sweet (go ahead -- check your pantry and fridge!), that means controlling our weight will require eating less of that stuff.

I will if you will.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  December 10, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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This may be true, but mostly irrelevant. Corn subsidies allowed HFCS to become the sweetener of choice, and allowed food manufacturers to add it in higher quantities, even to foods that had previously never seen more than a trace of sweetener (e.g., bread). So now, thanks in large part to the subsidies afforded HFCS, we eat more sugar than ever before - our foods have a higher caloric content than ever before. Combine that with the fact that we eat more packaged foods (containing HFCS) and soda (pure HFCS). The typical American diet gets 140 gm of sweetener a day. Sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, HFCS is 55% fructose 45% glucose. So I guess this set of studies shows that the extra 5gm of fructose over sugar's level isn't that big of a deal, but in reality HFCS is INDEED the problem, and if it is no longer subsidized, we won't eat as many calories and we'll all drop the pounds!

Posted by: mb129 | December 10, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

At McDonalds, you can get the Hugo, a 42-oz soda (that's more than 5 cups of soda!!), and free refills. When they rolled it out, they only charged 89c for the drink. Think about whether that would be possible in a world without subsidized sweeteners! Sugar would not only be prohibitively expensive for this type of promotion, but in this economy, free refils would disappear ... !

Posted by: mb129 | December 10, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

OK, Hugo might be off the menu now, but still the "large" is 32 oz, or 4 cups of soda. Unreal what we do to our bodies with this.

Posted by: mb129 | December 10, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I don't eat processed food, and don't plan on changing that because of this study. I feel that I "vote" with my money, and don't want to support that industry because, like mb129, I do believe that HCFS has contributed to a health epidemic.

Posted by: MzFitz | December 10, 2008 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I think the issue is that people of my generation (I'm 45) grew up as our mealtimes incorporated more processed foods. HFCS is part of that movement toward less than whole foods. My parents' generation (Depression era) had neither today's abundance of food, nor our culture's "faux" or processed food.

In general, it was easier to be slim then, because of the circumstances and environment. Some people were of course undernourished, and that's not any better. Today, incorporating good nutrition into one's day takes willpower and careful planning, even as junk food invades more of our space -- our consciousness, the food landscape, and our grocery shelves.

Posted by: readerny | December 10, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I love this commentary, especially MZFritz. "Darn the evidence...what I believe to be right is right." The problem with demonizing HCFS (or any food) is that while obesity has skyrocketed, the total calories that the average person consumes daily has been essentially the same over the past 30 years. However, the amount of physical activity has dropped. So, let's stop demonizing food and looking at the real causes of obesity. I'm not aware of any other "epidemic" that can be solved by getting off your butt.

Posted by: byte1 | December 10, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

The comments by byte1 are right on the money.
Yes, please, scientific studies, analyzed with strict statistical rigor, count. Presumptions should not.
If you need "anecdotal" evidence, look at those grandparents (or great-grandparents, depending on your age) of yours who worked in the fields from dawn to dusk and worked with their hands (i.e. did not sit all day in the cabin of a combine), yet consumed a high calorie diet.

Posted by: observer31 | December 10, 2008 3:16 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that the stuff is in literally eveything. Since when does canned chicken stock need HFCS?

Posted by: treadlefish | December 10, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The title from the Post on-line edition is "What's Really Causing Obesity." The impression is here is the answer! Can we do a better job in the reporting given that there is no answer?

Posted by: jsjmmurray | December 10, 2008 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Given the way humans are I think we'd all like to blame something besides an excess of fork curls on our weight problems.

Fewer fork curls, more table push-backs.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 10, 2008 7:49 PM | Report abuse

A couple of things you seem to have missed out the research published in the AJCN this month:

1. 4 studies were published
2. 2 of them confirmed earlier research
3. The other 2 were done by 'scientists' on the payroll of the Corn Refiner's association
4. Even notwithstanding that, all they said was that HFCS is no worse than sugar - the equivalent of 'Being drowned in salt water is no worse than being drowned in fresh water.

I don't see how any of this is cause for confusion once you look a little deeper than the CRA's press release ...

Posted by: davidG4 | December 11, 2008 1:00 AM | Report abuse

I'm a breast cancer survivor; pesticides likely caused my cancer. So I eat a lot of organic food, buy locally as much as possible, and avoid HFCS, per my oncologist's advice. I guess I'll have to ask him again about it; I sure like the bagels that have it better than the bagels that don't, although why HFCS is in bagels baffles me.

Posted by: dynagirl | December 11, 2008 5:13 PM | Report abuse

It isn't just corn syrup alone, it is a huge percentage of what we eat. The western diet produces obesity, diabetes, heart disease and many more.
The traditional Asian diet contained little meat, lots of rice, and fruits and vegetables and no obesity, no heart disease and no diabetes.
After reading The China Study, by Colin Campbell, I became a vegan -- which is a diet similar to the time honored Asian one. My blood pressure and weight are down, lots of aches and pains have gone away and generally feel happier and more energetic.
I didn't just give up high fructose corn syrup, I gave up all meat and dairy products and processed foods. I recommend it.

Posted by: bghgh | December 12, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

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