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High-fructose corn syrup may be the next target

By Carolyn Lamberson, Correspondent
January 2, 2008
The Spokesman Review

When New York City and Philadelphia announced plans to ban the use of trans fats in restaurants, it marked a sea change in the battle against the worst fat one could eat.

Trans-fat has been demonized, its link to heart disease confirmed and consumers educated in how to avoid it.

What is the next food demon?

Judging from the chatter online and among foodies, high-fructose corn syrup is a leading candidate.

"High-fructose corn syrup is the new trans fat, as far as I can tell from questions asked after my talks," said New York University nutritionist and author Marion Nestle.

The fact that high-fructose corn syrup became a major ingredient in processed foods just as America started its collective weight gain has some health advocates and consumers concerned.

A 2004 study suggested that our bodies treat HFCS as a fat, rather than a sugar, contributing to our collective weight gain. A more recent one, from this past August, suggests a link between HFCS and diabetes and high cholesterol. These studies, however, have not been conclusive.

It seems the scientific community isn't convinced the HFCS is any different that regular sugar. A sugar is a sugar, some experts would say.

The sweetener, used in everything from soda and ketchup to yogurt and bread, is derived from cornstarch. The cornstarch is converted to corn syrup then treated with enzymes to transform its naturally occurring glucose into fructose.

"If you taste Karo (corn syrup), you'll see it's not all that sweet," said Barry Swenson, a professor of food science at Washington State University. "What they essentially do is add sweetness to it."

According to the Corn Refiners Council Web site www.hfcsfacts.com, HFCS provides sweetness levels near that of regular sugar. It also promotes better browning in baked goods and can extend shelf life of processed foods.

It also comes from America's corn belt, making it cheaper than imported cane sugar.

Nestle, author of "What to Eat" and "Politics of Food," hears a lot of concern about HFCS from audiences. But she said there is little difference between high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar.

"HFCS is glucose and fructose separated. Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together, but quickly separated by digestive enzymes," she said. "The body can hardly tell them apart."

Still, people worry. Maybe it's because of the studies. Maybe it's because of books such as Michal Pollan's "The Ominvore's Dilemma," which details how prevalent corn is in our diets, or Greg Crister's 2003 book "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World," which makes a case against HFCS. Maybe it's because of the rise of the healthy eating movement, as evidenced in the growth in the organics market and organizations such as Slow Food. Maybe it's a combination of these influences that has people concerned about what they put in their bodies.

Dozens of Web sites discuss potentially negative health affects of the stuff. Other people simply don't like the idea of their food coming from a lab. In response, some food producers, such as Portland-based Franz Bakery, are starting to label their products HFCS-free.

The USDA estimates that in 2006, we ate an average of 41.5 pounds of HFCS. That's in addition to the 44.5 pounds of sugar consumed. While the research isn't clear, it is clear that Americans consume large amounts HFCS, mostly in sodas and processed food

"These types of foods are often high in calories and low in nutritional value," the Mayo Clinic Web site reads. "This fact alone is reason to be cautious about foods containing high-fructose corn syrup."

Boon Chew, professor and food scientist at WSU, put it this way: "People should be concerned about total caloric intake and the consumption total of refined sugar, more than a single item like high-fructose corn syrup."

The idea that calories are the culprit has plenty of support.

"I think everyone should be concerned about calories, since obesity has become such a problem for so many. HFCS is just another form of sugar, so the concern is really about quantity," Nestle said. "Lots of HFCS means lots of calories."

Jennifer Hill, organizer of the Spokane Slow Food convivium, said it may be the case that sugar is sugar. Still, she said, "Corn isn't sugar. It has sugar in it. It has a natural sweetener element to it, but corn was not meant to sweeten up the planet." While it may be that our bodies process HFCS and table sugar the same way, the issue is about quantity, she said.

"The problem is that there is sugar in everything," Hill said. "All those things just don't need sugar, at least not the levels that high-fructose corn syrup is used."

MaryJane Butters, a Moscow organic farmer and author, agrees. HFCS hides in unexpected places. Ketchup. Canned fruit. Yogurt. Salad dressings. Crackers. Even that whole-wheat bagel you bought as a "healthy" alternative.

"Why do you need a sweetener in there?" Butters said. "Doesn't that tell you that capitalism is afoot? There's no reason to put it in there, other than someone's making money off it."

Butters sees a correlation between the increased use of HFCS and the rise in obesity and diabetes. While she won't argue the science, she said, "I'm big on anecdotal evidence."

Her anecdotal evidence tells her that HFCS is bad news. "I think getting the stuff out of one's diet should be on everyone's list of New Year's resolutions," she said. " 'Read labels' is my mantra."

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