Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse Than Sugar?

Photo: When Mary Poppins sang about a spoonful of sugar in 1964, most Americans had never even heard of high fructose corn syrup.

A study funded by the Corn Refiners Association and published online at The Atlantic today suggests that “High Fructose Corn Syrup Is No Worse Than Real Sugar.”

To sum up the study: Overweight and obese men and women between the ages of 25 and 60 were split into five groups and provided diets with varying levels of sucrose or  high fructose corn syrup (HFCS): 10% sucrose, 20% sucrose, 10% HFCS, 20% of HFCS, or a diet designed to maintain weight. The sucrose or HFCS was consumed as liquid. All groups were required to exercise.

The study sidesteps the toughest criticism of HFCS — that, calories aside, it is linked to obesity in those who consume it — and instead asks a simpler, less-incriminating question: Does high fructose corn syrup cause more weight gain than sugar when participants are already overweight and are not allowed to act on cravings or consume additional calories?

While it’s true that a calorie is equal to any other calorie when analyzed as a mathematical measurement of energy,  where health becomes more nuanced is when we realize that calories from different sources have different effects on the body. In a clinical atmosphere, when you control a person’s caloric intake completely, it’s not always possible to see those effects. If a member of the study was fiendishly craving chocolate chip cookies but was instead provided with a plate of broccoli, the study authors are essentially ignoring the shift in hormones and chemicals that has taken place in that participant’s body.

Weight loss frustrates doctors because it should be simple: fewer calories in, more calories out.  Clearly, it’s not so simple. Many studies contradict this one. A Princeton study found that rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar. A simple analysis of data shows us the relationship between HFCS and obesity: “The consumption of HFCS increased more than 1000% between 1970 and 1990, far exceeding the changes in intake of any other food or food group,” according to an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. During those same years, the percentage of obese adults doubled.

Could it be that the exponential increase of drinking sugar is to blame for obesity and not the sugar itself? Absolutely. But this doesn’t mean that HFCS is not to blame — HFCS is perfectly suited to liquid sugar consumption. Parents who eliminate HFCS from their diets and the diets of their children go a long way toward decreasing liquid sugar intake as well.

I’m disappointed by The Atlantic‘s one-sided regurgitation of the study, which seems to come straight from the marketing department of the Corn Refiners Association. To conclude his analysis, James Hamblin writes, “There’s no reason you should pay more or go out of your way for a food just because it’s made with ‘real sugar’ instead of HFCS. Which, to be clear, is also real sugar.” Hamblin ignores the fact that, even if this study were absolutely true, it has nothing to do with those who maintain a healthy weight. It’s interesting that the study only recruited men and women who were already very overweight or obese, which Hamblin never acknowledges in his conclusion.

A quantum leap in logic is made when Hamblin suggests that Americans — almost 70% of whom are overweight or obese — should not seek out food made with ‘real’ ingredients when food made with HFCS is available. Hamblin’s bias — or the bias of those providing him information — is clear in his use of quotation marks. Health writers sometimes use quotation marks around the word “sugar” as shorthand for “imitation sugar” since there is currently no one word to describe the newer “sugar” imitations created by food giants. Quotation marks around the word “sugar” help to differentiate between newer “sugars” and the table sugar Americans have known for decades.  Instead, Hamblin uses quotation marks around the word “real” and the phrase “real sugar.”  Real sugar is real sugar, no quotations necessary. Hamblin seems to have it backwards. Back in 1997, even the Corn Refiners Association freely admitted that HFCS and sugar are different products “in terms of their physical and functional characteristics.”

I could suggest a more productive study in which the Corn Refiners Association monitors both people who are obese and people of healthy weights, allowing them to eat whatever they typically eat, and then measuring the amount of sucrose and HFCS consumed by each of the groups.  But those studies have been done and the results are clear. I could ask questions about this study to shed more light on its outcome. For example:  After the study, which group gained weight back the fastest?

Instead, here’s a more important study that you can do on your own:  Eliminate HFCS from your diet for 3 weeks.  Have a craving for a sweet snack while you’re out and about?  Swing by the grocery story and pick up some strawberries.  Have a craving for chocolate chip cookies? Bake a batch with real sugar and butter. Like pancake syrup? Try out 100% maple syrup. Read every ingredient on every package you consume — no high fructose corn syrup.

Then answer this: Have your cravings for sugar increased or decreased? Have you lost or gained weight? Overall, how do you feel?

Theory is one thing and practice is another. The Corn Refiners Association study is caught up in theory while casting a blind eye toward the very serious obesity epidemic and how the day-to-day choices that Americans must make every day affect their health.

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