Back in March 2004, researchers George Bray of Louisiana State University and Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina submitted the equivalent of a letter to the editor to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Although their research was not peer reviewed, they postulated rising amounts of fructose in the diet, among them foods and beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), might play a role in America’s rising obesity epidemic.
That letter set off a flurry of media articles and comments from food critics decrying the use of HFCS. Six years later, the uproar continues. The debate is all too familiar to Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based Corn Refiners Assn. (CRA).
“There has been confusion because the name high-fructose corn syrup suggests it is high in fructose, but it is not,” says Erickson. “As for Popkin, he has since publicly retracted his theory. In fact, he’s gone on record saying there is nothing to it.” And she adds, “Many food critics, including Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Walter Willett chair, Dept. of Nutrition, at the Harvard School of Public Health, and even Marion Nestle, author and professor [from] New York University, agree there is no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar and have been very public in their comments. They all agree it is another form of sugar – one made from corn.”
Even more notable, highly credible institutions agree. “The American Medical Assn., which studied the issue for a year, found the composition of sugar and HFCS are so similar there is no reason to suggest that high-fructose corn syrup is more correlated with obesity than sugar,” says Erickson. “The American Dietetic Assn. noted it is nutritionally equivalent to sugar, the calories are the same, and the body can’t distinguish the two. So we have a surround sound, so to speak, of credible organizations consumers look to for health and food information and also food critics who agree that high-fructose corn syrup as a cause of obesity is an urban legend.”
To get the message to consumers, CRA launched a multimedia campaign in June of 2008. “We started with newspaper ads, followed by television ads and magazine ads, which can be found on www.sweetsurprise.com,” explains Erickson. “The point of this consumer education campaign is that high-fructose corn syrup contains the same number of calories, is equally sweet, natural, handled the same by the body and is nutritionally the same as sugar. Since we are not trying to increase consumption, we note in our ads that sugars are fine in moderation. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t know what a moderate portion is. But when consumers see the ads, they are more favorable to high-fructose corn syrup and agree strongly about moderation. Sugar is sugar, whether comes from corn, cane, beets or honeybees,” she says emphatically.
Two formulations are available to the industry -- HFCS 42, a low-sweet version and HFCS 55, equal to sugar. The calories are the same, and they remain widely prized by the food and beverage industry. HFCS does not come as a crystallized product because it retains moisture. “Explaining why these ingredients are in foods helps consumers understand and appreciate that manufacturers have taken great care to consistently provide the brands they love,” says Erickson. “High-fructose corn syrup allows the product to taste the same every time and to be equally thick, and it does so at an affordable price.” HFCS is half the price of sugar, which is at an all time high (sugar averaged over $1,000 a ton in 2009).
How can manufacturers respond to consumer backlash of their products containing HFCS? “By clearing up confusion over how much high-fructose corn syrup is contained in everyday foods and pointing out the role sweeteners play in foods,” advises Erickson, who points out that HFCS is more than just a sweetener in formulations. “It gives thickness and richness to spaghetti sauces and reduces the acidity and tartness of cooked tomatoes. It is highly fermentable (more so than sugar) in baked goods and offers excellent browning characteristics. It retains moisture, so high-fiber foods and cereals taste more palatable. Fruit flavors in yogurt are enhanced and high-fructose corn syrup keeps ingredients equally mixed throughout.
“It’s a great product for frozen foods because it has a lower freezing point, so it gives texture to ice cream, and it enables frozen juice concentrates to be taken out of the freezer and into a jar. If sugar were used, the juice would be hard as a rock. HFCS maintains freshness in condiments, and ensures the taste profile and shelfability in beverages over a long period because of the pH environment. It gives a chewy texture to breakfast bars and enhances fruit fillings in baked goods or pies, maintaining a creamy, gelatinous texture. All of these functions and benefits we rely on as consumers every time we buy our favorite brands would change if high-fructose corn syrup were no longer available. It makes distinctive brands possible.
“High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn grown in America, it creates American jobs and contributes to the economy. Most important, the FDA has confirmed its safety over a long period of time.”
And that brings us back to the cause of obesity in America. “Calories in, calories out remains the tried and true answer to address overweight and obese conditions,” says Erickson. “Kids don’t get enough exercise, and Illinois is the only state in the nation that mandates physical education in schools. It’s notable that First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign does not single out any food or ingredient. Nothing will change until kids get moving, preferably 60 minutes of exercise every day.”