My take on the High Fructose Corn Syrup rebranding
Sep 15, 2010, Updated Aug 11, 2017
With the recent uproar about the Corn Refiners Association’s goal of rebranding High Fructose Corn Syrup into the supposedly more appealing “Corn Sugar” name, and considering that avoiding HFCS is one of my three cardinal rules, I thought I might spend a moment today to chime in.
There seems to be a lot of misinformation about HFCS out there, and I think it’s time we started looking at the situation with a little bit of perspective.
Unfortunately, trying to determine whether or not HFCS is “evil,” as many opponents call it, is downright maddening. I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to find reputable, science-based evidence that specifically backups up claims that HFCS is worse for us than any other sugar, and I haven’t come up with much.
The folks who demonize HFCS can be particularly, well, evangelical. I frequently see people make anecdotal, emotional, and unsupported claims like “the body processes it differently” or “it’s chemically processed, therefore it must be bad for us” or they label it “a scourge” or “an abomination,” and so on. There are usually a lot of exclamation marks.
The emphatic outrage following a post yesterday morning on the Center For Science in the Public Interest’s Facebook Wall is clear testament to that fact. (The uproar was over a quote in an AP article from Dr. Michael Jacobson, head of CSPI, in which he claims that HFCS is no worse for us than any other sugar. Here’s a clarification of his position.)
But where is the evidence?
Let me be clear: I’m not asking if HFCS is simply “bad” for us. I’m talking about whether or not it’s worse for us than other sugars.
To date, I’ve only found one study, by Princeton University, that draws a conclusion that HFCS is indeed worse for us than regular table sugar (sucrose). I have repeatedly asked people to send me studies that vilify HFCS — but so far, that Princeton study is the only (presumably unbiased) one I’ve got.
(If you know of any other studies that specifically implicate HFCS over other sugars, please send them my way!)
I was thrilled to read the Princeton article (ah-ha! finally some proof!), until I came across this skepticism of their conclusions by Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. The head of the Princeton lab that conducted the studies posted his rebuttal in the comments section. So back and forth it goes, between respected experts, with no conclusive proof after all.
Dr. Nestle also posted on her blog yesterday about the HFCS rebranding; it’s worth the read. (In that post, she also reiterates that “HFCS is not poison.”).
Jumping to fructose conclusions
It’s important to know that ordinary table sugar — sucrose — is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose (they bond together to form sucrose). Most HFCS is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose (sometimes it’s a slightly different ratio).
Once we consume the sucrose, it is quickly broken down in our bodies to the fructose and glucose components. Yes, there is an additional metabolic step, but it seems there is not yet any conclusive evidence that the extra step makes a significant difference.
But what really gets me frustrated is when journalists (or worse, scientists) jump from a “fructose is bad” finding to immediately singling out HFCS (as the Reuters article implies).
If table sugar has about as much fructose in it as HFCS, shouldn’t we be shunning table sugar with the same passion?
A sugar by any other name
So that brings us back to the recent uproar about the rebranding of HFCS as “Corn Sugar.” The Corn Refiners claim it’s to help alleviate consumer confusion. Although I’m loathe to agree with them, I have to say it kind of makes sense.
Considering the frequency of “fructose is bad therefore HFCS is bad” arguments, it seems there is a basic misunderstanding of the amount of fructose in HFCS when compared with regular table sugar.
Perhaps something good will come from this: Instead of merely blaming HFCS for all the added-sugar evils in the world, people will start to realize that all added sugars pose potential problems.
Seeing the forest through the trees
Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, wrote on her blog today that focusing on one ingredient over another misses the point. She writes:
We need to stop obsessing over details like food labels, salt content, carbs, and grams of this fat vs. that fat. Instead, we need to talk about (and get the media to focus on) the importance of eating a whole foods (mostly plant-based) diet. One message scares Big Food more than any other: that people should be eating whole food that comes from nature and not from a factory. Industry really has no solution to offer, because their business model is based on processing nature, packaging it, and marking it up for high profits.
So, what to do?
I’ve written before about why I do not eat HFCS — which is actually fairly well aligned with Ms. Simon’s point. What I haven’t mentioned is that I also eat very little other added sugars.
Bickering over whether or not to avoid HFCS, and what to call it, seems futile at this point. Unless there is conclusive evidence (and perhaps there will be some day), it seems only prudent to try to avoid added sugars of all kinds.
Sure, it would be so much easier to blame all of our problems on high fructose corn syrup, but it seems to me that doing so is just burying our heads in the sand.
If you really want to take a stand, I encourage you to eat as little commercially-processed food as possible. To get started, take the October: Unprocessed challenge!
Photo by will nickelson.