The anti-HFCS campaign in Slate

(Hat tip to the Ethicurean.)

Daniel Engber writes in Slate about the campaign against High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Delving deep into not only the science of sweeteners, but also the sociology of foodies, he concludes that HFCS is on the decline not because of what it is, but what meanings are imparted upon it.

Read Dark Sugar.

Here are some of my favorite parts:

There may be other reasons to blame obesity in the United States on high-fructose corn syrup. According to a critique popularized by Michael Pollan, the development of HFCS allowed cheap, subsidized corn to be converted into cheap, subsidized sugar. Food processors plumped up with empty calories, and America got fat. But it’s not clear we’d be consuming any less sweetener if corn weren’t so cheap and plentiful. Since the corn content of HFCS contributes less than 2 percent (PDF) to the cost of producing a can of soda, the effect of the subsidies amounts to just a few pennies in the retail price. And while the price of corn syrup is kept artificially low by farm subsidies, the prices of other sweeteners are artificially inflated by tariffs and quotas on imported raw cane sugar and refined sugar. In other words, if we wiped out all of our subsidies and trade restrictions, we’d still have plenty of cheap sugar around, and processed foods would be just as caloric. As Tom Philpott points out in Grist, you don’t need high-fructose corn syrup to rack up American-style obesity rates: Australia manages similar numbers with a food industry based largely on cane sugar.

And the following paragraph:

The unwholesome reputation of HFCS has no doubt been exacerbated by the general view that it’s less “natural” than other forms of sugar. The notion that anything natural is healthy—and anything artificial is not—seems especially silly when it comes to added sweeteners. If fructose is indeed the problem, we’d do well to avoid the all-natural sweeteners in health-food products and fruit drinks, which often include concentrated apple or pear juices. These are almost two-thirds fructose—and might be significantly worse for your health than HFCS. (Organic, raw agave nectar could be even more dangerous, containing 90 percent fructose.)

That’s one of the things that I’ve been telling people – if the fructose content of HFCS is a problem, then look out for the fruit juices sweetened by concentrates made from apple, grape, and apparently pear. Fructose means “fruit sugar” and is highly abundant in fruit. I was going to try to find a reference for this to find out how much exactly – but Daniel has provided us a link to check it out. As Marion Nestle pointed out in her HFCS article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

If you are an optimist, you are happy that fructose – unlike glucose – does not stimulate the release of insulin, and in small amounts can be a useful sweetener for people with diabetes.

If you are a pessimist, you will fret that fructose is preferentially metabolized to fat, raising the possibility that HFCS – or any other source of fructose (but we won’t worry about fruit) – could have something to do with current obesity trends.

(emphasis mine)

High Fructose Corn Syrup is sugar, and eating a lot of it is not healthy. That is plain and simple. People need to eat fewer simple sugars in their food, and with everyone’s concern about obesity and diabetes, attention has focused on High Fructose Corn Syrup as the Devil’s Sweetener. This is a mistake.

It is a mistake because it becomes a real strain of the scientific evidence to conclude that HFCS is any worse overall than other sweeteners, be they sucrose, fruit juice, or honey.

It is a mistake because the effort to convince people that it tastes any different falls flat on the fact that it was formulated to precisely imitate table sugar in sweetness.

It is a mistake from an environmental standpoint not because it is any better or worse for the environment, but because no one has made such a calculation. I’m sure that cane sugar from South America doesn’t stand up as particularly environmentally-friendly when compared to corn grown in the Midwest. Perhaps HFCS is worse for the environment, but we don’t know – and making such an argument (although this is seen less often in discussions over HFCS) without knowing is not a good idea.

Finally, it is a mistake because it is exhausting people’s efforts. The public only has a limited amount of time, thought, and energy that they are willing to spend on issues that are not the central focus of their lives. Foodies will spend all the time in the world on HFCS. But everyone else will only invest a small amount of time, unless it is a pressing, urgent need.

What is the outcome? This is something that food activists should be worried about, especially Michael Pollan, whose recent book criticized unhelpful ‘healthful’ hyphenated labels popping up everywhere like daisies. Now we have food products all over the store proclaiming that they are now “HFCS-Free”, trying to stand out as the ‘healthier’ choice. When all they have done is simply replace HFCS with good ol’ white sugar again. Ironically, Pollan et al, have planted the seeds of a new set of useless food labels.

I have in my possession a prime example. Two bread loaf wrappers from a brand of bread I have purchased – identical in every detail – except the ominous placement of “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” on one, and the replacement of HFCS with Sugar in the ingredients. There is absolutely no difference in the number of grams of sugar in each, or calories for that matter. The same goes for every other product that has abandoned HFCS for the Devil’s Sweetener of the 90’s – there is a new label proclaiming its healthful status with absolutely no change in its healthful status. People are believing that they are eating healthier when they are not.

That is why any healthy-food campaign focused on the identity of the source of sugar and not the quantity of that sugar is ultimately wrong-headed. Foodies everywhere are happy to see HFCS going out of style, their bellies full of the victuals of this victory – when all they have managed to eat are empty political calories.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.