Science and Nutrition: Activists and others like to play the blame game when it comes to obesity. But their theory about some sweeteners doesn’t hold water. It turns out sugar is sugar, whether it comes from sugar cane, sugar beets, or corn, and it's perfectly fine in moderation.

Science & Nutrition

Most of what you think you know about sweeteners is probably wrong. Some of this is a product of simple misunderstandings. The rest is a giant scam. Get the facts.

The Public Health Blame Game »
Theory vs. Data »
The Scientifically Challenged »
Moderation: A Palate Adjustment? »

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The Public Health Blame Game

Common sense dictates that a life of binge eating and no exercise is a recipe for trouble. But as the litany of false alarms of the last several decades have demonstrated, public health is a complex issue.

Every few years, a new “smoking gun” theory takes public attention by storm by explaining away a health malady such as cancer or diabetes with a single dietary factor. Unfortunately, too many Americans are living their life “according to the latest study.” Yet almost without fail, they are eventually debunked. And it seems like every fallen health hypothesis has brought another food ingredient down with it.

For as long as this dietary blame game has been around, sweeteners have been a favorite target.

As Tom MacMillan of the British Food Ethics Council has explained, “When it comes to consumption, sugar has see-sawed with fats as the focus of concerns over obesity and diet-related disease.”

Interestingly, one of the most popular complaints about high fructose corn syrup—that it was too omnipresent—was first leveled at sugar in the 1980s. As new methods of food production developed, many of these processes found new ways to use sugar.

Food industry policy expert Michael Heasman describes these changing patterns of consumption:

From the late 1950s and ’60s onward there was an accelerating shift from the packet to the consumption of sugar as an ingredient used in processed foodstuffs, so that by the end of the 1980s more than 70% of sugar was accounted for by “industrial users.”

But the rise of convenience foods had as much to do with advances in packaging and distribution as it did with the availability of sweeteners—or any ingredient, for that matter. Consumers were as drawn to the convenience and low price of these foods as the companies that jumped at the chance to produce them more cheaply.

The result of these changes was a shift in consumer lifestyles and preferences. Eating required less energy, and fewer calories burned.

The switch by many food producers from sugar to high fructose corn syrup didn’t matter from a health standpoint because both sweeteners contain the same number of calories. As the American Dietetic Association explained in December 2008, "The source of the added sugar—whether sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrate—should not be of concern; rather it is the amount of total calories that is important.”

This is not to say that convenient foods are to blame for what has become known as the “obesity epidemic.” Vehicles, escalators, television, leisure activities, and countless modern labor-saving devices all contributed to the same problematic equation: more calories consumed and fewer calories burned. The ubiquity of sweeteners and dietary fats has been a side issue.

Next: Theory vs. Data »

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Theory vs. Data

The theory that corn sweetener is a unique contributor to obesity rates goes back to 2001, when a U.S. Surgeon General report encouraged more research into the causes of obesity.

In one of many obesity theories to fall flat over the years, Professor George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana wondered if epic weight gain could be explained by a single factor: high fructose corn syrup.

Teaming up with Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Bray published his theory in the April 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Their supporting evidence was a correlation between obesity rates and rising annual consumption of corn sweetener.

But a classic principle of Science 101 warns that correlation does not equal causation. Obesity, like other public health ailments, was more complicated than Bray had suspected.

The study was met with widespread criticism. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who is an unlikely defender of HFCS, told the Associated Press: “[T]he authors of this paper misunderstand chemistry, draw erroneous conclusions and have done a disservice to the public in generating this controversy.”

In 2006, Popkin and Bray opted to avoid the issue of high fructose corn syrup in a University of North Carolina panel on beverages and nutrition in order to avert a “distraction” from the controversial 2004 study. Popkin explained:

It was a theory meant to spur science, but it’s quite possible that it may be found out not to be true. I don’t think there should be a perception that high fructose corn syrup has caused obesity until we know more.

By 2008, however, the HFCS-obesity theory was still a “nutritional dogma” in the words of one USA Today reporter. That year, Popkin would back off the theory even further in a special supplement of five studies examining high fructose corn syrup in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 

Taken together, the five papers found that there was no evidence to suggest high fructose corn syrup is any different from table sugar. And Popkin finally joined the consensus about sweetener science:

It doesn’t appear that when you consume high-fructose corn syrup, you have any different total effect on appetite than if you consume any other sugar.

The hype about high fructose corn syrup and obesity had been debunked by its very own creators.

Next: The Scientifically Challenged »

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The Scientifically Challenged

Chemically, table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup are almost identical.

Sucrose and high fructose corn syrup contain almost the same ratio of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Table sugar is made up of 50 percent of each, while high fructose corn syrup comes in two varieties: a 42 percent fructose formula, and one that contains 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.

Translation: Sometimes, table sugar is even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup!

As New York Times reporter Melanie Warner put it in 2006, “the name ‘high fructose corn syrup’ is something of a misnomer.”

Here’s a taste of what the experts have said about sweetener similarities:

  • As far back as 1996, the Food and Drug Administration explained that “the saccharide composition (glucose to fructose ratio) of high fructose corn syrup is approximately the same as that of honey, invert sugar and the disaccharide sucrose.”
  • In June 2008, the American Medical Association issued a report about high fructose corn syrup and concluded, “Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.”
  • Barry Popkin, who coauthored a 2004 paper establishing the myth that high fructose corn syrup is uniquely responsible for American weight gain has explicitly dismissed the claim that the body processes it differently than sucrose: “It doesn’t appear that when you consume high fructose corn syrup, you have any different total effect on appetite than if you consume any other sugar.”
  • In an April 2009 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, biochemist John S. White stressed that “HFCS does not pose a unique dietary risk in healthy individuals or diabetics.”

Even though the amount of fructose in high fructose corn syrup isn’t high in relation to table sugar, there is a reason for its somewhat misleading name: Its fructose content is higher than ordinary corn syrup. Corn syrup, which is made using corn starch, is made mostly of glucose.

But why all the fuss over fructose in the first place? Some studies have shown that the metabolism of very high levels of pure fructose consumed without any glucose may affect certain metabolic parameters. But as this lesson in Sweetener Science 101 shows, it's important to understand that humans do not eat these ridiculous amounts of pure fructose.  Instead, we eat fructose in combination with glucose. All caloric sweeteners contain both fructose and glucose.  No caloric sweetener is "high in fructose"—not even high fructose corn syrup. Do not be mislead by scare science.

Fructose can be found in many of the foods we eat - fruits, vegetables, honey, and other sweeteners.

When it comes to high fructose corn syrup and ordinary table sugar, as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle put it, “the body really can’t tell them apart.”

Next: Moderation: A Palate Adjustment? »

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Moderation: A Palate Adjustment?

The evidence is stacked against consumers and governments who are convinced that removing high fructose corn syrup—or even table sugar—from their diets is a prevention strategy for obesity or chronic disease. Fortunately, there are more effective ways for policy makers (and the rest of us) to move toward healthier lifestyles.

The problem is that the only proven road to overall health isn’t an easy one: exercise and moderation. When it comes to our collective “addiction” to sweetness, moderation may prove to be remarkably difficult.

J.T. Winkler, a Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University, explains:

We eat too much of it because we like it. We like it, not just because of some local cultural preference, but also because humans are genetically programmed to like it in several ways. For example, our innate preference for sweet tastes is one way to distinguish ripe fruit from that which is not yet ready or too far-gone.

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