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Is that right? HFCS makes people fat?


I learned some interesting things while researching this blog entry. For instance, the Latin term ad libitum means "at one's pleasure" and is the source of the term "ad lib."

And I discovered that lab rats undergo something called "rapid decapitation" when it's time to check the results of an experiment.

What I did not learn was that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) causes obesity in humans.

Princeton University recently circulated an article announcing a study, which was conducted by researchers in its psychology department and Neuroscience Institute and published in the journal "Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior." In short, the study found that rats who consumed lots of HFCS became obese. So, the authors conclude, "Translated to humans, these results suggest that excessive consumption of HFCS may contribute to the incidence of obesity."

As might have been expected, the HFCS industry quickly responded, with the Corn Refiners Association pointing out several flaws in the study that undercut its conclusions.

Translating the study's reported rat intakes to human proportions, the calories gained from high fructose corn syrup would be equivalent to about 3000 kcal/day all from that single source. In comparison, adult humans consume about 2,000 calories per day from all dietary sources. Such intake levels for the study animals would be the equivalent of humans drinking a total of 20 cans of 12 ounce sodas per day - a highly unrealistic amount. Moreover, the researchers concluded that the rats gained more weight from high fructose corn syrup than they would have from sugar, yet the researchers had no proper basis for drawing this conclusion since they failed to provide sucrose controls for part of the study's short-term experiments and no sucrose controls whatsoever were present in any of the long-term experiments.

But others with less direct interest in the outcome have voiced criticism, too, most notably Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and author of the Food Politics blog. In her entry about the study, she writes

I can hardly believe that Princeton sent out a press release yesterday announcing the results of this rat study. The press release says: "Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same."
How they came to these conclusions is beyond me.

Among Nestle's chief complaints: Though the study claims that all the rats consumed the same number of calories, nowhere does it actually say how many calories. Plus, the whole thing seems poorly designed, with rats consuming different combinations of HFCS, sucrose and rat chow for varying periods, making straight comparisons difficult.

I agree with Nestle and the corn refiners: This study's not convincing enough to support its statement that

In summary, rats maintained on a diet rich in HFCS for 6 or 7 months show abnormal weight gain, increased circulating TG [triglycerides] and augmented fat deposition. All of these factors indicate obesity. Thus, over-consumption of HFCS could very well be a major factor in the "obesity epidemic," which correlates with the upsurge in the use of HFCS.

I contacted Bart Hoebel, the professor at Princeton who worked with the research team and whose name appears on the paper. While I believe that a published scientific paper should stand on its own, with no added explanation from the researchers, I would really like to understand this study better. To see the questions I e-mailed him and his answers, keep reading on the next page.

The bottom line: Drinks sweetened by sugar or HFCS contain calories, and consuming too many calories can make you fat.

Lab rats don't get to choose what they eat and drink. But people do.

Rats can't tweet, but we can! Look for me and the other Local Living writers at @wposthome/local-living. And keep track of my "Me Minus 10" effort to lose 10 pounds before I turn 50 at

JLH: Can you explain, for the nonscientific folks out there, how reliably rat-study results translate to humans?

BH: The rat is much like the human in regard to feeding behavior and basic metabolism. Rats evolved eating a diet something like ours; in some cases our own garbage. Thus the rat is a reasonable "animal model" of human feeding behavior in many cases. There are some cases in which rats taste things differently and metabolize food differently than people. Rat studies need to be reproduced in people whenever possible, after the critical variables have been established using laboratory animals.... To see a review of all fructose studies in animals and people, I recommend [George Bray's article in the February 2010 issue of Current Opinion in Lipidology, "Soft drink consumption and obesity: it is all about fructose."] However, note that many human studies compare pure fructose with other sugars, which is not what we did. We offered rats high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose, which are the common ingredients in soft drinks. The results do not apply directly to humans, but strongly suggest the need for more experiments along these lines.

JLH: Marion Nestle criticized the study for not being clear about the rats' calorie consumption. Can you speak to that?

BH: She says: Although the authors say calorie intake was the same, they do not report calories consumed.

We say: Caloric intake was reported in the Results section for Experiment 1.

She says: nor do they discuss how they determined that calorie intake was the same.

We say: In the Methods section we explain that we measured HFCS, sucrose and chow intake daily. We computed the calories consumed, which is also described in the Methods section.

She says: This is an important oversight because measuring the caloric intake of lab rats is notoriously difficult to do (they are messy).

We say: We do not see any oversight. The drinking tubes had an anti-drip device built in and we collected spillage for the food pellets for accuracy. We reported the caloric intake and the standard error, which shows the variability in intake for a given group. This is reported in the Results section.

JLH: Also, many critics felt the study was designed poorly, never pitting HFCS directly against sucrose and testing for what seemed to be almost arbitrary time periods. Again, anything you could offer to help us better understand those issues would be helpful.

BH: Not true. In male HFCS was compared directly to sucrose in Exp 1. In Exp. 2, we compared HFCS to sucrose in females, and we describe in the paper our reasons for using 12-h and ad libitum access to sucrose vs. HFCS. We were interested in comparing the effects of limited vs. continuous access.

JLH: Finally, something about the way the study was written sounds as though researchers set out to link HFCS to obesity, not to determine whether such a link exists. It feels as though the dots aren't all connected very clearly. Can you address that, please?

BH: The study was designed to explore the comparison of HFCS with sucrose and at the same time to compare 24 h access with 12 hr access, plus males with females. Keep in mind that this is research, and one does not know which will be the key results when starting out. We discovered that male rats drinking HFCS were heavier than the matched sucrose controls in Exp 1 and heavier than the other groups in Exp 2. Regarding females, again the HFCS rats were the heaviest; although the sucrose control group had sugar available for less time per day, we had reason to think this was not a critical variable based on our prior publications in which 12 and 24 hr access to sucrose leads to the same body weights. Moreover the females, like the males, showed elevated triglycerides and increased fat deposits. This is all explained in the article for anyone who wants to study it carefully.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right? , Me Minus 10 , Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity  
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I am truly puzzled why people think that HFCS somehow are magically different than refined able sugar.

My father never drank any soda at all and still, through peanuts and beer and TV he gained lots of weight in the 1970s.

If anything I believe our obesity rates are related to the amount of entertainment we get while sitting in chairs- at home in front of the TV, starting with the VCR in 1980- or in front of the computer, starting with the home computer around 1979. I mean, by 1984 EVERYONE was sitting down immobile. did our obesity epidemic start then? well that's my semi-scientific theory.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 26, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Yes, people should watch how much sugar (of any molecular makeup) in their body. However, you don't find HFCS in products that aren't overly processed. Cut these out of your diet, and you won't have to worry. Don't buy food "products," buy food.

Additionally, we as consumers aren't even trusted to buy the stuff and use it as an ingredient. Why don't they trust the public to use it as an ingredient?

Posted by: MzFitz | March 26, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

It seems like the researcher answered the questions pretty well, and it sounds like Nestle is the one who didn't read the article carefully.

Posted by: crazycatlady | March 26, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

It's not that HFCS is bad, just think of it as predigested table sugar. The problem comes from the fact that fructose and sucrose are chemically processed different by the body and the FDA allows it in EVERYTHING. The corn industry tells half truths in its commercials when it tries to say there is no difference. Even products that you think don't have it, have it. Mind you, the labels on food products are not precise and the government gives food manufacturers some leeway when it comes to reporting trace amounts. So after consuming what you believe are standard calories for the day, you probably have consumed enough sugar to equal 20 sodas. So I hav eto agree with MzFitz comment to just try to stay away from so much processed food. It's easy, it's convenient, and in some cases cheaper--but not necessarily good for you.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | March 26, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Yes, HFCS makes people fat.

It's a highly refined by-product of corn meaning that it causes free radical damage in our bodies and can lead to cancer.

HFCS consumption also leads to diabetes and heart disease.

It is toxic to the liver, causes triglycerides to go through the roof, and will make you sick and fat.

Soda is the #1 food containing HFCS. The best thing you can do for yourself right now is to cut out ALL soda from your diet.


Posted by: sjc42 | March 26, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

The HFCS industry is attacking a study that suggest that it's bad for your body to consume HFCSs???? That's crazy! That's like the tobacco companies attacking studies that suggest smoking is bad for you??

Why would they do that????

Posted by: thebobbob | March 26, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

The rats in the corn and food industries have spent a fortune gnawing on the truth to legitimize the use of HFCS in all products.

A Japanese scientist invented the industrial production process at the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Japan in 1965–1970.

The irony of this is that the Japanese at about the same time mandated the use of stevia as a sweetener in Japan which has up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar with almost no calories. Until recently, the FDA banned the use of stevia in food and beverages under the guise that it was harmful to protect the corn, sugar and chemical industries.

America and Mexico both guzzle soft drinks in huge quantities loaded with HFCS. Is it any wonder it any wonder that America and Mexico lead the world in obesity and diabetes and Japan has the world's record in longevity?

Posted by: alance | March 26, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

The scientific proof may be uncertain, but one thing is clear good health is dependent on proper diet and exercise. You can find great tips and information on health, fitness, and nutrition listed on is a free online fitness tool that can help you get in shape, stay in shape, and lead a healthy lifestyle.

Posted by: gstallkamp | March 26, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

The University of Minn in 1988 published the results of a well researched study of HFCS and its consumption by honeybees. HFCS is used frequently by beekeepers to help the bees during periods with little foraging resources. The study found that bess fed HFCS grow larger and produce 20% less brood than bees fed sucross. Sucross in nectar is converted by the honeybees into glucose which is the basic sugar found in honey. The process that creates HFCS results in a high level of glucose that is not honey.

Posted by: pmramsey1 | March 26, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

There is a key link that is missing here. Corn has an omega 6 and 3 (EFA's essential fatty acids) ratio of 46-1. The human body needs approx 3-1 ratio. Look up the endocannabinoid system and obesity. There was an obesity drug developed called Rimonabant that has since been removed by the FDA. This was the first drug designed to work on this system.

The western diet has an omega (EFA) balance that is totally off balance. This is a reasonable explanation for same calorie sugars having differing results. Google endocannabinoid system and obesity. Then investigate the omega balance and the western diet.

Learn and educate.

Posted by: Dayadog | March 26, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

I am puzzled by the objections to this study by Dr Nestle and the author of this blog. the article says "Among Nestle's chief complaints: Though the study claims that all the rats consumed the same number of calories, nowhere does it actually say how many calories." However in section 3.1 Results, the paper reports that "the 12-h HFCS group gained significantly more
body weight, they were ingesting fewer calories from HFCS than the
sucrose group was ingesting from sucrose (21.3±2.0 kcal HFCS vs.
31.3±0.3 kcal sucrose; F(1,16)=12.14; pb0.01)." So the paper's authors did measure and report the calories each group got from sucrose versus corn syrup and they then report that the total caloric intake from rat chow plus sucrose or rat chow plus corn syrup was the same. However even though the same total caloric intake was consumed the rats getting corn syrup got fatter. The paper is pretty straightforward and clearcut and shows a significant harmful effect of corn syrup on rats.

Posted by: infrederick | March 26, 2010 11:41 PM | Report abuse

The criticisms of the study are silly in the extreme.

In keeping with the study's limited proof, it merely stated that corn syrup might possibly be a factor.

The critics fallaciously attack the study as if it claimed conclusive proof.

Doesn't anyone actually read carefully anymore?? Or is it just something about this blog? I wonder.

Posted by: YondCassius | March 27, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

I am truly puzzled why people think that HFCS somehow are magically different than refined able sugar.

My father never drank any soda at all and still, through peanuts and beer and TV he gained lots of weight in the 1970s.

"If anything I believe our obesity rates are related to the amount of entertainment we get while sitting in chairs- at home in front of the TV, starting with the VCR in 1980- or in front of the computer, starting with the home computer around 1979. I mean, by 1984 EVERYONE was sitting down immobile. did our obesity epidemic start then? well that's my semi-scientific theory"

Add in the tendency to snack while being not moving and your theory makes great sense.

Posted by: veerle1 | March 27, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

There was lots of vague criticism on the first page. You had to go to the second page to see the rebuttal from the scientist. His rebuttals were clear. Why list Nestles' objections if effective and verifiable rebuttals disprove them?

Posted by: ACounter | March 27, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Shut up nerds. It's pretty simple really - burn more calories then you consume. Everything else is just conversation.

Posted by: Axel2 | March 27, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

Don't be surprised by the criticism on the first page. I would suspect that this is one of those new breed of "journalists" that are not really journalists but rather those that get paid to shape public opinion. It is a new advertising segment that was introduced with the internet blogger revolution. It is killing the credibility of actual journalists.

Posted by: stuarts50 | March 29, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

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