TCS Daily

Trick or Treat?

By Sandy Szwarc - October 31, 2003 12:00 AM

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become the latest goblin lurking in our foods.


The scary story goes like this: HFCS isn't the same as old-fashioned sugar -- it's not natural and therefore is dangerous. Responsible for the obesity epidemic, it not only makes us fat it's at the root of many of today's dietary evils. It's the sweetener found in sodas, canned fruits, ice creams, desserts and other processed foods that are bad for us. And, it's been put there by greedy corporate moguls in the food industry who've conspired with the government and our nation's farmers to dump cheap corn and make us fat. (I'm not making this stuff up.) Since it's 75 percent sweeter than conventional sugars, it's given us such sweet tooths that each of us now consumes about 150 pounds of sweeteners a year. A few decades ago we ate no HFCS, but we're now eating more fructose than ever before, accounting for just over half of our sweetener intake, or 62.6 pounds apiece annually.


It's enough to make your teeth hurt. But, the facts give a completely different story.


Sugar Is Sugar


Ironically, fructose, which is also known as fruit sugar, was once considered a healthier, "more natural" alternative to sucrose, that is, old-fashioned table sugar. Fructose is in such foods as fruits and vegetables, Jerusalem artichokes, the starch of corn kernels, and honey. It's the result of photosynthesis, the plants use of energy from sunshine. What could be more natural?


The name HFCS is a misnomer. It actually contains about the same amount of fructose as sucrose (ordinary table sugar). Sucrose is composed of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose in a 50-50 ratio, while HFCS contains 42 to 55 percent fructose, with the remaining percentage being mainly glucose. "Once absorbed, the body has no way of knowing whether a molecule of fructose came from sucrose, HFCS, honey or fruit," said Guy  H. Johnson, Ph.D. of Johnson Nutrition Solutions LLC. "Since the proportion of glucose and fructose in HFCS and sucrose are similar, these two sweeteners are virtually indistinguishable by the body."


According to an International Food Information Council (IFIC) Review: Sweet Facts About Sugars and Health, "there are no nutritional differences among sugars. The body uses all types in the same way."


"Despite having been labeled as 'empty calories,' sugars are truly important compounds," said Anne L. Mardis, M.D., M.P.H. in a Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion report. All carbohydrates are broken down to simple sugars before being absorbed by the body; most are converted to glucose, the main fuel needed by all cells and the brain, she explained. Because simple sugars are all chemically identical, the body cannot distinguish between those from different sources, whether natural or added to foods.1


Have We Become Sugar Vampires?


Sugar use decreased from 83 percent of all sweeteners used in 1970 to 43 percent in 1997, while HFCS increased from 16 to 56 percent during the same period according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) report. "However, this marked shift in sweetener usage has NOT had a major impact on the fructose content of the U.S. diet because HFCS and sucrose have similar compositions," said Johnson. Indeed, a study by the Office of Special Nutritionals, Food and Drug Administration, found the total amount of fructose in the diet has remained relatively constant since 1977, accounting for about 7 to 9 percent of our caloric intake.


So to blame HFCS for recently rising obesity rates is illogical when we realize it's the same thing as ordinary sugar, and the amount of fructose in our diets hasn't increased with HFCS use. Fructose has been part of the human diet for thousands of years as honey and hundreds of years as sugar. Europe has seen the same rising weights but they don't allow HFCS in their food supply, so even common sense questions any link to obesity. 

And we're not eating nearly as much sugar as is being reported. The source for that oft-repeated "Americans consume 150 pounds of sugar a year," according to  The Real Scoop on Sugar Consumption is the ERS report. Its statistics are purely economic numbers -- a point lost on many reporters and even researchers. Economists use the term "consumption" to describe not actual human consumption, but the total supply of any product available for all commercial uses during a specific period of time. The ERS report didn't account for food waste during processing, storage and cooking, exports and nonedible uses such as for pet foods and cut flowers, which are considerable. "Ignoring the descriptive term 'economic' and misrepresenting supply numbers as human consumption is not only deceptive, it is dishonest," said the Sugar Association. "Reporting economic supply numbers as nutrition fact is as fictitious as equating gross salary (total available supply) and take-home pay (human consumption)." The Sugar Association reveals that, according to the USDA's Continuing Survey of Food Intake of Individuals, the standard for measuring food consumption data, the amount of sugar the average American eats is actually around 29 pounds per year, or nine teaspoons per day, and about 64 pounds a year for all added caloric sweeteners.


So Much for the Conspiracy Theory


Most homecooks and culinary professionals know that fructose in corn syrup, honey and other sweeteners offers many benefits: makes for moister, more tender baked goods that keep well with less risk of spoilage and don't dry out; facilitates nice browning (the Maillard reaction); helps control crystallization in candies, jams and sweets; helps yeast fermentation; dissolves more easily than other sugars and blends well with other ingredients.


"While pure fructose is about 75 percent sweeter than sucrose, because both HFCS and sucrose are made up of almost a 50/50 blend of fructose and glucose, both products are about equally as sweet and have four calories per gram," said Curt D. Mercadante of the Corn Refiners Association which has just launched HFCS is a preferred sweetener by many food and beverage manufacturers for the same qualities homecooks appreciate, he said, as well as its stability, especially with acidic ingredients, and clean sweetness that doesn't mask natural flavors.


Is HFCS Safe?


Sugars have been studied up and down and inside out for decades and have repeatedly been determined to be safe. In the 1970s, the FDA had commissioned the Select Committee on GRAS Substances. It found no evidence to implicate sucrose, corn sugar, corn syrup or invert sugar to obesity, heart disease or diabetes. Before the FDA's 1988 ruling, its Sugar Task Force did another comprehensive review of epidemiological, clinical and animal studies on sugar which concluded: "Other than the contribution to dental caries, there is no conclusive evidence on sugars that demonstrates a hazard to the general public when sugars are consumed at the levels that are now current."1,2 


The Task Force expressly considered and rejected the hypotheses that sugars play a role in "glucose tolerance, diabetes mellitus, lipidemias, cardiovascular diseases (hypertension and atherosclerotic coronary artery disease), behavior, obesity, malabsorption syndromes, food allergies, calciuria-induced renal disease, gallstones, nutrient deficiencies, and carcinogenicity," according to a Grocery Manufacturers of America's June 26, 2000, summary.


The National Research Council reached a similar conclusion in 1989.3 And a 1997 Joint Report prepared by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization also found no evidence that sugar consumption is a causative factor in any disease. The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report Diet and Health, and Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all concur.


Scares Unrealistic


Still, HFCS is the current dietary demon. The Corn Refiners Association's white paper,  The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup and Obesity, notes the alarmist reactions lack scientific merit. Most studies are based on pure fructose, extraordinarily high amounts of fructose multiple times higher than is in the food supply and normally consumed, or animal studies that have not been replicated in humans.


As Steve Milloy, author of Junk Science Judo (Cato Institute, 2001) and editor of said, "Poisoning animals isn't science." Using high doses to observe toxic effects "means minimizing the odds that the findings have any relevance to humans," he said.


"Fructose in the absence of other dietary sugars is unrealistic," said John S. White, Ph.D., a fructose researcher with White Technical Research Group, Argenta, IL. "Fructose has always been in the human diet and there's nothing extraordinary about it. But it's always found in about a 50 percent ratio to glucose. The percentage is what's important, not the total amount of fructose in grams. The sugars have a buffering effect on one another and don't act independently. You don't see malabsorption problems unless you study unrealistic percentages of fructose, which disappear at around a 50 percent intake. I believe this same titrating effect explains those studies using unrealistic fructose intakes that suggest problems with leptin, trigylcerides, insulin, etc."


Moderation in all things


In a USDA study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, little difference was found in the quality of diets among those eating more or less added sugars -- no matter what form they take. "Sugar is not inherently a dietary villain," said David Klurfeld, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University, editor-in-chief of the JACN and Nutrition New Focus and scientific expert with IFIC. "The statistical relationships of sugar intake with the rest of the diet are small and probably not biologically meaningful."


The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee agreed that added sugars don't play a negative role in the public's health.4 That doesn't mean we can live on sugar alone, according to Walter Glinsmann, M.D., FDA's associate director for clinical nutrition and senior author of the Sugar Task Force report.  "If half your diet is pure sugar, that is not healthy," he said. But, "in a normal, varied diet, there are no adverse effects of sugar itself."


The Food and Nutrition Board of the NAS suggested last year that added sugars not exceed 25 percent of total calories because of concerns that excess sugars can replace more nutritious foods.5 For a moderately-active woman that translates to 60 grams of added sugars daily for the 2400 calorie diet she needs.


Whenever you hear a scary food story, think of it like any other spooky story -- as entertainment. Happy trick or treating! It's probably best not to make a habit of eating your entire candy haul in a sitting, but that's just common sense.


Additional References

1. Sugars Task Force. 1986. Evaluation of Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners. Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration. Washington, D.C.        


2. Glinsmann, W.H., Iransquin, H., and Park, Y.K. 1986. "Report from FDA's Sugars Task Force: Evaluation of Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners." Journal of Nutrition 166(155):51-216.


3. National Research Council, Committee on Diet and Health, Food and Nutrition Board. 1989. Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.


4. U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S Department of Health and Human Services. "Nutrition and Your Health; Dietary Guidelines for Americans." 3rd. ed. (1990) Washington: U.S. Department of Agriculture HNIS Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232. pp. 1-27.


5. Murphy, S. and Johnson, R. "The scientific basis of recent U.S. guidance on sugars intake." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October 2003; 78 (4);  827S-833S.


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