Clarifying Added Sugar Myths

Calories from HFCS and added sugars are just one-tenth of the total calorie increase since 1975, so clearly are not the primary cause of obesity.

By John S. White, Ph.D., White Technical Research

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Food Processing's February cover story, Holy Grail of Sweeteners? disappointed all who have followed recent developments in the added sugars debate. Especially disconcerting was the incompleteness of the material used to justify the article on high-intensity sweeteners.

I'm not so concerned about the ill-informed quote from first lady Michelle Obama about high-fructose corn syrup. More serious was the mischaracterization of nutritive sweeteners as unhealthy food choices. [Author Diane Toops] did not attempt to separate nutritive sweetener fact from fiction nor historical conjecture from currently accepted truth.
Let's clarify a few things about added sugars:

  • Added sugars are functionally different from high-intensity sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose and stevia. The latter are so intensely sweet that very little (hundredths-to-thousandths) will provide the same sweetness intensity as added sugars, but contribute little functionality. By contrast, added sugars also support yeast fermentations, structure and texture building, surface browning and aroma development, flavor enhancement, sweet-acid balance, unpleasant flavor masking, freezing point control, microbial stability, minimize freeze-thaw damage, extend product shelf life and provide additional valuable, under-appreciated product contributions.
  • Added sugars are not solely responsible for obesity. This serious condition arises from consuming too many calories from all dietary sources over a prolonged period of time with no compensating increase in exercise. In the past 35 years, daily calorie intake for the average American has risen an alarming 25 percent. While energy from sugars increased by 55 calories per day during this period, energy from cereals/flour and fats rose by 200 and 300 calories per day, respectively (according to USDA figures). At just one-tenth of the total calorie increase, added sugars are clearly not the primary cause of obesity.
  • The introduction of high-fructose corn syrup 35 years ago was not the cause of obesity. High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener alternative to sugar, conceived to overcome periodic shortages in sugar availability and resulting price increases (as is the case now); sugar instability in acidic soft drinks and fruit preparations; bagged sugar handling difficulties; and functional limitations in certain foods and beverages. It replaced sugar one-for-one, so that as high-fructose corn syrup usage went up, sugar usage went down. Despite this dramatic change in sweetener choice, more sugar is still used in the U.S. today (and worldwide) than high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is clearly not the cause of obesity.
  • A popular misconception driving the deprecation of high-fructose corn syrup is that the corn wet milling process used for its production is more "complex" than the perceived "simpler" or "more natural" processes for sugar, fruit juice concentrate or agave nectar production. In fact, they all share remarkably similar production methods that aim to refine the raw botanical material into a robust and versatile sweetener that can be formulated into a wide range of foods and beverages.
  • Recent research and studies by the American Medical Assn., the American Dietetic Assn. and many expert scientific panels confirm there is little difference in composition, calories and metabolism between added sugars such as sucrose (table sugar), high-fructose corn syrup, honey and fruit juice concentrates. 
  • There is scant science to support the American Heart Assn.'s (AHA) recent recommendation to further restrict added sugars. This decision appears to have been based solely on data gathered using extreme diets rarely encountered in the human experience and absent any consideration for historic changes in intakes of fats and other dietary nutrients (see above). The AHA recommendation will surely be debated for some time to come.
  • There is no doubt that high-intensity sweeteners have a place in today's foods and beverages, but they have limitations that cannot replace added sugars. Let's not dismiss valued and proven traditional sweeteners such as sugar and high-fructose corn syrup by citing obsolete material that has repeatedly been refuted by knowledgeable scientists.
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