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Is the HFCS Debate Counter-Productive?

unhealthy meal

High fructose corn syrup is a hot topic these days. Whether we’re talking about the corn lobby’s attempt to give it a new name or that more and more products are ditching the HFCS in favor of table sugar, it’s definitely on folks’ minds.

Both pro- and anti-HFCS have a lot to say about the sweetener, and part of me worries that this debate is an unintentional red herring. Let’s set aside the more hotly-debated concerns about HFCS for a minute and look at some of the over-arching issues with food.

The Obesity Problem

America is becoming an obese nation, and HFCS is a piece of that puzzle.

I fully agree that, thanks to subsidies, HFCS is a cheap food additive. Sugar is an excellent preservative, so adding HFCS helps lengthen products’ shelf lives. These are serious benefits for food manufacturers, and it’s no wonder that this stuff is in everything. It’s contributing to the sweetening of our diets, adding empty calories to so many foods that we eat.

The problem is, HFCS isn’t the only culprit. Table sugar, processed foods, and white flour all contribute to obesity, too.

We eat too many empty calories, we are too sedentary, and we need to take a hard look at our overall lifestyles. When we get bogged down in arguing about one factor, we’re wasting energy that we could be spending on educating people about proper nutrition.

Nutrition

Jeannie talked not too long ago about making your drinks count, and the same goes for food. Filling up on sugars, white flour, and processed foods is bad for our health.

We know that Americans come up far short when it comes to fruit and vegetable consumption. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are on the rise, and we have our diets and sedentary lifestyles to thank.

Rather than arguing about one aspect of the problem, what if we spent that time, energy, and money on educating people about eating balanced diets and getting proper amounts of exercise?

You might be able to argue that soda made with sugar is slightly better for you than soda containing HFCS, but whether that’s true or not, it’s just a tiny part of the problem. The big problem is how many of those sodas we’re drinking every day, as well as the high fat, low fiber, nutritionally void meals that accompany those sodapops.

If we’re going to fight obesity-related illness, we need to stop arguing semantics and start talking about what a healthy lifestyle really looks like.

What do you guys think? Is the HFCS debate distracting us from the bigger issues at hand? Is it the key to this country’s obesity epidemic? Is it somewhere in between? I’m interested in your thoughts on this!

Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by speaker4td

8 comments
  1. Carol RD

    The focus should be on educating consumers to read labels so they can make more informed choices I believe that the name “corn sugar” will help to this end, but to sit and debate the semantics is effort that should be placed towards sharing advice for healthily lifestyle change as Ms. Striepe states. I am a registered dietitian who has worked with clients for many years and I also consult with the food and beverage industry including organizations such as the Corn Refiners Association. Generally speaking, I do not focus on any one food, beverage or ingredient when giving nutrition advice for I have found that it is not a successful approach and does not help in making life long realistic changes of consequence. Consumers need to know how to make wise food choices and balance their daily intake with physical activity, not pick and choose certain ingredients or foods to eliminate from their diets. I agree that most consumers need to decrease intake of low nutrient foods that are highly sweetened and replace them with fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains and low fat dairy, but as mentioned above, we need to educate children and adults so they can make these informed choices that are based on sound science. I will continue to work with my clients to this end and I hope other health professionals will do so as well!

  2. Rosanne Rust, MS, RD, LDN

    “…what if we spent that time, energy, and money on educating people about eating balanced diets and getting proper amounts of exercise?”
    I agree – Since I do this for a living. I hope your article does get people thinking about some truths.

    I’m a registered dietitian and nutrition educator. I’m also a consultant to the Corn Refiner’s industry. In all cases, my job is to help consumers understand the facts (science) about nutrition; particularly weight control and disease prevention.

    I agree that this debate is distracting folks from the real issue: Behavior Changes are Required. But, the fact remains that many consumers believe much of the misinformation out there about HFCS.

    To clarify: “You might be able to argue that soda made with sugar is slightly better for you than soda containing HFCS…” Well no, it’s not even slightly better really. It’s the quantity and frequency of consumption of such foods or beverages that is the problem.

    This is part of the reason to engage in this discussion. All sugars should be limited and should represent a very small portion of our diets. Other sugars include: honey, dextrose, maltose, sugar (sucrose), invert sugar, glucose, sorbitol, turbinado, mannitol. Many of these are not on consumer radar when they check out food labels.

    In terms of HFCS, consumers clearly have misunderstood its chemistry and metabolism. This proposed name change can help consumers with the goal to reduce all added sugars in their diet, since the name corn sugar clearly identifies it as a sugar.

  3. Cynthia 1770

    Hi Becky,
    I think HFCS is a big part of the obesity epidemic.
    The following is a little long, but what do you think.

    The CRA’s Makeover: HFCS to Corn Sugar

    On September 14, 2010, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) to allow them a euphemistic change, rename High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as just down home, lovely “corn sugar” “After all,” Audrae Erickson, President of the CRA, explained, “HFCS is a term that confuses people. We want them to know that HFCS is just a type of sugar, only derived from corn; that it is not high in fructose, but has approximately the same amount of fructose as other sweeteners like sugar and honey.”
    There is more than one HFCS. The trouble with this simple comparison is that the CRA is not telling you that corn refiners produce sweeteners of varying fructose content. According to Archer-Daniels-Midland’s website, they produce three grades of HFCS: Cornsweet 42, Cornsweet 55, used for soda; and Cornsweet 90, intensely sweet and used for low-calorie foods and beverages.

    ==========================Composition==============fru:glu
    Cornsweet 42 (HFCS-42) 42% fructose: 58% glucose 0.72
    Cornsweet 55 (HFCS-55) 55% fructose : 45% glucose 1.22
    Cornsweet 90 (HFCS-90) 90% fructose : 10% glucose 9.0
    Table sugar, (Sucrose) 50% fructose: 50% glucose 1.0

    The percentage range and the ratio. The range of fructose in HFCSs is 42% to 90%. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has stated, “Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 per gram) and consist of equal parts of fructose and glucose.” I’ll give them some latitude; perhaps the ADA is not aware of Cornsweet 90.
    Still, the percentage fructose does not tell the whole story. Since the sweetener is also composed of glucose, one needs to survey the fructose:glucose ratio to appreciate how increasing the fructose content affects the fructose:glucose ratio. As you can see by just tilting the scales a little towards greater fructose content as in HFCS-55, the fructose : glucose ratio becomes significantly greater. To illustrate, in every American Coke there is, compared to glucose, 22% more fructose.
    Whether you believe that HFCS uniquely contributes to the obesity and diabetes epidemics, or you believe that HFCS is so cheap and ubiquitous that we are awash in this industrial sweetener, the research has always shown that it is the excess fructose we have been ingesting that has contributed to our current health woes. Dr. R Johnson’s book, The Sugar Fix, the high- fructose fallout that is making you fat and sick. (2008) is a good reference.

    Increasing the fructose in HFCS. I have always been stymied by why the CRA chose HFCS-55 to sweeten soda. Why not “HFCS-50″ which would have at least mimicked sucrose 50:50. I surmised that they had added more fructose for different reasons.
    First, the end manufacturers could use less. This is relevant since the enzymatic conversion of glucose to fructose is the expensive step which initially precluded industrial production. The first two enzymes used in the production of HFCS are relatively cheap and just thrown in the vat. The third enzyme, glucose isomerase, was too expensive to just add it to the glucose syrup. Japanese researchers developed a way of charging a column with the enzyme allowing the glucose solution to be converted to fructose as it passed through the column. This was the breakthrough the CRA needed. The beauty of this method was the enzyme could be reused and industrial production of HFCS was financially feasible. Still, if boosting the
    percentage of fructose reduces the cost for food manufacturers since they can use less but
    still maintain the same sweetness, it’s a good deal.
    The second reason had conspiracy overtones. Similar to the tobacco companies who tried to addict us to nicotine, I envisioned that the CRA had their own lab rats and increased the fructose concentration knowing that we would guzzle more of their brew.
    Trust Occam’s Razor. The simple answer, were it not so tragic for our collective health, is almost comical. A former employee of a corn refiner plant explained the reason. The first job of the corn chemists was to find the right fructose-glucose combination that pleased our taste buds. HFCS-42 passed the test for sucrose-like sweetness. This is not surprising, that less than 50% free fructose would taste as sweet as the 50% bound fructose in sugar. Long ago, bakers and candy makers discovered that sugar treated with a weak acid dissociated into fructose and glucose. This process heightened the relative sweetness and came to be known as invert sugar. (This is why foods with lemon and sugar can be excruciatingly sweet. The acid in lemon juice separates the sucrose into fructose and glucose unleashing the full sweetening effect of fructose.)
    HFCS-42, however, was not optimal for industrial production. The solution ran sluggishly and it took excessive energy to pump it out. The corn refiner’s solution—add more fructose! Fructose is more hygroscopic (moisture retaining) than glucose, and boosting the fructose concentration to HFCS-55 solved the problem. Brilliant–their pipes run well, and our livers and arteries start getting clogged. Did it ever occur to the CRA, that the fructose:glucose ratio in HFCS-55 might have a long term metabolic effect? In 1984, Big Soda announced that they were switching to HFCS, and the corn refiners started shipping HFCS-55 to all national soda manufacturers. Note in the USDA graph, Obesity vs. HFCS, the graph’s curve changes after 1984, the year Big Soda made the switch.

    CRA’s deceptive tactics. As I see it, the CRA is misleading us in two ways. First, by referring to HFCS as a single syrup they are not revealing the fact that corn refiners are generating different corn sweeteners with a wide range of fructose content. Let’s face it– the CRA has clear license to monkey with the fructose content any way they or their end manufacturers want. Regardless of the fructose concentration, it will always ring in at 4 cal/gram, and the fructose: glucose ratio will never affect the nutritional breakdown on the back of the package. For the consumer, however, the HFCS label is a black box. Is it HFCS-42, HFCS-55, HFCS-90 or something in between?
    There is a segment of our population for whom limiting the amount of fructose they eat is not a matter of nutritional discretion, but a medical necessity . Thirty per cent of the population is afflicted with some degree of Fructose Intolerance. There are two forms of FI. One is a mal absorption problem that affects adults and children and causes unpleasant digestive disturbances, gas, bloating, and osmotic diarrhea. The second form, which can prove fatal, results from a hereditary defect in a liver enzyme that metabolizes fructose. Accurate labeling is a necessity for those with FI.

    Secondly, the CRA wants to lump all of these different sweeteners under the gentle, consumer friendly rubric, “corn sugar”. My concern is that, if the FDA were to acquiesce to their request, their next step would be to ask to drop the word “corn.” After all, when sugar is listed as an ingredient, whether it comes from cane or beets is not identified, only that it is sugar. Ultimately this is what the CRA is hoping for– transform the HFCS Witch into Princess sugar.

    The name HFCS should remain. The FDA should also require listing the grade,
    e.g. HFCS-90. Yes, HFCS-90 sounds less than gustatory, more like something with which to clean your car or upgrade your computer, but, that is what you are eating and drinking, or, my fervent wish, are actively avoiding.

    Cynthia Papierniak, M.S.

    1. Becky Striepe

      I agree this HFCS is part of the problem, and I don’t agree the CRA’s biased reports about its affects on the body. I just wonder if it’s taking away from talking about even larger issues with our diets and lifestyles, do you know what I mean?

      I think that renaming HFCS “Corn Sugar” is a totally shady move.

  4. Neva Cochran

    As a registered dietitian, I totally agree that the HFCS debate is out of control and taking the focus off the bigger issue of healthy habits that can help people lose and maintain weight and decrease risk of chronic diseases. No one food or ingredient is responsible for obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease or other conditions. It’s the total diet and lifestyle. More important than debating the relative risks and benefits of HFCS vs. sugar or any other sweetener, the key is to consume all sweeteners in moderation as part of a balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy and healthy fats. And by eating foods in appropriate portion sizes and balancing calorie intake with adequate physical activity, we can stem the tide of rising obesity and the health risks associated with it. Neva Cochran, MS, RD, LD, Consultant to the Corn Refiners Association

  5. Lisa Cimperman RD

    As a dietitian, I agree completely that focusing on HFCS does nothing to solve the obesity problem. Americans keep getting fatter because we’re looking for the easy way out – and right now, the easy way of choice is to simply avoid one food ingredient. As history has shown us, that’s not going to work. It’s the total diet and one’s lifestyle habits than contribute to obesity, not just a single food ingredient. HFCS and other forms of sugar like beet or cane sugar, honey, and fruit juices all contain the same amount of calories and are metabolized in the same way. Calling HFCS “corn sugar” more accurately identifies these similarities. Let’s just learn to enjoy sweeteners in moderation and focus on strategies that will REALLY solve the obesity problem – like increasing activity and ditching junk food and fast food in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables!
    Lisa Cimperman MS, RD, LD
    Clinical Dietitian
    COnsultant to the CRA

  6. PatRD

    Yes, this issue is distracting from the larger issue. When it comes to items like sweeteners – honey, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup – all have the same 4 calories per gram. They have a similar makeup, and they are metabolized in the same way. Moderation is key!
    As a registered dietitian, consultant to the food industry (like the Corn Refiners Association), and a college professor I use science to carry messages. Facts like those above are one illustration. Let’s focus on portion size and physical activity. Let’s give consumers positive messages backed with good science.

  7. KC

    Great perspective! It really is time to stop fighting over all the little details and focus on the big issue. How to PROMOTE HEALTH, rather than AVOIDING JUNK.

    When I started learning about nutrition, I would always focus on what I could eat rather than focusing on what I had to cut out. It really helped for me and I think it can really help the public in general. What if ads for whole, local organic fruits and veggies were as prominent as junk food ads? How can we as parents, business owners and friends start promoting what makes us feel great rather than debating over something that we would like see drop the wayside anyway?

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