Sweet Changes: “High Fructose Corn Syrup” to “Corn Sugar?”
On September 14, 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to advertise high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.” Although name changes have occurred in the past for other foods, a wave of debate has erupted over this petition. Almost exactly a year after the petition in September of 2011, sugar farmers and refiners sued the corn processors and one of their lobbying groups in federal court.
But while the debate arrived at the courtroom only a month ago, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been around much longer than that. According to a 2009 article by John White in the Journal of Nutrition titled “Misconceptions about High-Fructose Corn Syrup,” HFCS was born from efforts of corn wet-milling companies in the late 1960s to invent a liquid sweetener that would be able to compete in taste with dry sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar. Solid compounds like sucrose require much higher labor and heating expenditures, and the improvement in production yielded massive profits to corn firms, according to the White article. Yet, the wave of health awareness that has gained strength over the public in the past decade has begun to overwhelm the previous tide of HFCS domination. According to the Ecology Global Network, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recorded that the average American consumed only 35.7 pounds of HFCS in 2009, down 21 percent from 45.4 pounds a decade before. While the industry is by no means flagging, executives do recognize a need for a change in approach. In response to the stigma associated with fructose, marketers devised a name change to re-fashion the sweetener and re-launch it into the public, along with a fifty million dollar advertising campaign, writes Thomas Watkins in a 2011 Huffington Post article titled “Corn Syrup Lawsuit Heads to Los Angeles Court.”
The public’s apprehension towards fructose has a solid backing. Researcher at Princeton University Miriam Bocarsly published a study titled “High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels” in 2011 in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior that proved a causal relationship between HFCS and weight gain in rats. After being fed HFCS sweetened water, the rats showed a sharp rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides. A CBS News article on February 11, 2009, titled “Sweetener Controversy Grows” cites another four-year study on the effects of fructose in carbonated beverages, which indicated that appetites that usually decrease after eating did not diminish as much after drinking fructose-sweetened sodas. Such bodily reactions trick the mind into digesting more than it needs, leading to fat buildup in the circulatory system. Clearly, large amounts of fructose can damage a healthy equilibrium and cause lasting harm. But is fructose actually more abundant in high fructose corn syrup than in other brands of sugars and sweeteners?
Some evidence would say no. For example, the director for the Center of Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy at the University of Maryland, Dr. Maureen Storey, points out in a 2007 study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition that HFCS-42 (forty two percent fructose), found in a variety of supermarket foods, contains less fructose than table sugar, which is fifty percent fructose and fifty percent glucose. Another article from 2010 by Professor Jennifer Anderson from Colorado State University demonstrates that both HFCS and table sugar average four calories per gram. Margot G. Wootan, the director of Nutritional Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, advocates that consumers should be more concerned with limiting overall amounts of sugar in their diets. According to the U.S. News and World Report article in 2005 titled “A Sweet Nation,” Americans ate 114 lbs. of sugar and sweeteners in 1967; in 2003, that number rose to 142 lbs. The same 2005 U.S. News and World Report article notes that, in 1950, consumers drank 11 gallons of soda beverages in a year. In 2003, they drank 46 gallons, averaging a gallon per week per person. One twelve ounce can of soda provides more than the American Heart Association’s daily recommended allowance of sugar.
Given America’s current state of health, the craze over what to eat and what to avoid is understandable. The National Center for Health Statistics recorded 46% of Americans to be overweight in 1980 but 62% to be overweight in 2000. However, Richard Forshee, Ph.D., Associate Director for Research in the Office of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the FDA, disputes the claim that, simply due to a coinciding rise in HFCS consumption and obesity rates, there is a direct correlation between the two. Ecological analysis, he maintains in a 2007 news bulletin from the University of Maryland Newsdesk, is not enough to establish definite conclusions – smoking rates, two-income households, and increased computer usage – all these factors and others may have contributed to the twenty percentage point leap in obesity. Delegates from the American Medical Association (AMA) backed a similar resolution in 2008 that maintains there is no scientific evidence that HFCS deserves the blame for obesity more than other sugars or sweeteners. While the AMA acknowledges that obesity rates have soared with HFCS usage, the AMA responds that people have also begun to lead more sedentary lifestyles.
Instead, the AMA urges the scientific community to conduct more research on high fructose corn syrup. Most of the current studies are funded by the corn industry and involve individuals who may possess a vested interest in the matter. CBS News looked into this issue of bias for the Corn Refiners Association and found that, of the six studies they examined on the CRA website, two were never published, one was sponsored by a Dutch foundation that represented the sugar industry’s interests, and another was funded by Pepsi. Yet another was supported by a D.C. based lobbying group that receives its money from food, chemical, and drug companies, and the final study was given a grant by the American Beverage Association. Dr. David Ludwig from The Children’s Hospital in Boston conducted an experiment, cited in the 2007 issue of the Public Library of Science Medicine, to determine whether the source of funding played a role in the outcome. Ludwig found that studies sponsored exclusively by food and drink companies were four to eight times more likely to be favorable to the sponsoring company. The study that Dr. Storey conducted, mentioned earlier in this article, was entirely funded by Tate & Lyle, one of the biggest producers of high fructose corn syrup and also one of the defendants in the court case against the sugar refiners.
America’s struggle with cardiovascular diseases, wrestle with diabetes, and widespread use of sofas and SUVs are linked to its status as a developed nation. As the United States continues to struggle with chronic disease, issues like the use of HFCS will likely continue to be hotly debated.