Don’t blame obesity on high-fructose corn syrup

A recent workshop at Virginia Tech’s Center for Food and Nutrition Policy found no connection between the increased use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and rising rates of obesity, especially among children.

In a report presented at the Institute of Food Technologists’ meeting last month, Maureen Storey, director of the center, said there is no reason to think HFCS is worse than table sugar or any other sweetener as a contributor to obesity, nor to diabetes or cancer. That disputes reports circulating earlier this year that there is more than coincidence that obesity has increased along with the use of the sweetener.

“Obesity rates have increased pretty much in proportion to cell phones, SUVs (sport-utility vehicles) and computer use, but nor are they the causes of obesity,” Storey said in a news conference. “Obesity is a complex, global problem. The U.S. is the only country using HFCS significantly, but we are not the only country dealing with obesity.”

The source of her defense of HFCS was a May weekend workshop at Virginia Tech that brought together about 10 nutrition experts and food scientists. They reviewed literature and studies on the subject, applied statistical methods and generally debated the issue.

Perhaps the most telling data was the compositional comparison of the fructose, glucose, other saccharides and moisture present in HFCS-55 (the most popular form of the sweetener), sucrose, invert sugar and honey. “They’re virtually identical,” said John White, an Argenta, Ill., independent researcher and member of the study group. They also are very close in terms of sweetness, with HFCS actually coming in a little lower than the others, at about 99 percent of the sweetness of sucrose.

The use of high-fructose corn syrup has increased dramatically in recent decades from 1.5 pounds per person in 1974 to 62.7 pounds in 2000. Manufacturers have turned to HFCS instead of sugar because of its shelf stability and relatively low cost.

A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition drew a correlation between obesity rates and consumption of HFCS. Those researchers speculated the use of HFCS makes soft drinks sweeter and consumers therefore crave them more and consume more.

As for the relative sweetness of carbonated soft drinks, the Virginia Tech researchers say the previous study mistakenly concludes that high fructose corn syrup is sweeter than sugar by evaluating the sugars that comprise HFCS in a dry state. In liquid form, as it is presented to consumers, HFCS has the same level of sweetness as regular table sugar, as evaluated by independent panels of sensory experts.

Other studies have questioned whether HFCS is somehow metabolized differently by the body than sugar. But Storey said HFCS chemically breaks down into the same simple sugars - glucose and fructose - as sugar. She acknowledged that no study has been done to conclusively show how the body metabolizes HFCS, but said that biochemically "there is no reason I can think of they would be different."

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