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.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
December 10, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Nutrition and Fitness
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