High Fructose Corn Syrup: Not as Bad as It Seems

June 11, 2013

When chemists Richard Marshall and Earl Kooi started fiddling with cornstarch, the powder made from the dense insides of corn kernels, their intention was to turn glucose, which is easily produced from the starch, into fructose, which is sweeter. The duo's experiment, which took place at the Corn Products Refining Company in Argo, Illinois, was a success, says Science News.

The scientists announced their triumph in a short report in Science in 1957. There the discovery sat in quiet obscurity for almost two decades, until a worldwide spike in sugar prices sent manufacturers scrambling.

  • By the end of the 1980s, high fructose corn syrup had replaced cane sugar in soft drinks, and it soon became popular among makers of baked goods, dairy products, sauces and other foods.
  • Few consumers seemed to care until 2004, when Barry Popkin, a nutrition scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with George Bray, at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., published a commentary in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pointing out that the country's obesity crisis appeared to rise in tandem with the embrace of high fructose corn syrup by food producers.
  • Popkin's paper was far from an indictment of high fructose corn syrup. It offered only the weakest kind of evidence -- a provocative correlation and a graph showing an eerily similar upward trajectory for both obesity and the preference for high fructose corn syrup over sucrose, or table sugar.

Some caution that public opinion has gotten ahead of science and that fructose tunnel vision may distract us from the complex causes of the country's obesity crisis. Having a corn-based bad guy in the crosshairs has been an advertising boon for the sugar industry, Popkin says. The phrase on food labels that says "made with natural sugar" is popularly interpreted as "healthier," as is "no high fructose corn syrup." In truth, the consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been falling since 2004. Yet obesity rates remain high.

John Sievenpiper, a nutrition researcher at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says that people are consuming more calories period -- not only those from fructose. Weight gain poses serious health risks, regardless of where the extra calories come from.

Source: Laura Beil, "Sweet Confusion: Does High Fructose Corn Syrup Deserve Such a Bad Rap?" Science News, May 16, 2013.

 

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