It has been blamed for childhood obesity by Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, hyped by a famous food activist as the cause of environmental catastrophes, and casually called poison by people who want to police our dinner tables. It can be found gracing the ingredients portion of almost every soda can and potato chip bag. And it can now be seen promoted on television through clever ads to convince consumers that it is natural and actually the same exact thing as sugar. Due to mixed information and never ending news casts discussing the controversy over the scientifically made sweetener, consumers seem to be missing the actual facts. So what is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) anyway, and is it good for you or not?
[Pollock]The group of critics against the sweetner seems to be growing as the obesity rate continues to rise in America and around the world. Some say the sweetener has ingredients that trick the body into thinking it is hungry, even after large meals. Others wonder how a sweeter can be the same as sugar if it is artificially made, some going as far as calling it a toxic chemical concoction.
“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand. When it comes to corn, we’ve heard all different kinds of myths,” Jody Pollock, Executive Director of the Michigan Corn Growers Association, said. “Somebody says something and all the sudden its a legitimate concept. We need look at our diets and look at things in moderation. When considering a diet, it’s vital to look at the whole picture. In moderation products with high fructose corn syrup are fine, but consumers also need to incorporate a balance of exercise into their diets.”
Commercials featuring consumers being corrected about the effects of HFCS are now on television as part of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association. One commercial shows a concerned mother warning another mom that HFCS is not good for the kids but when asked why, she cannot quite give a reason for her accusation. Another gives the same scenario with a couple eating popsicles in the park, while yet another shows two brothers sharing bowls of cereal together in the morning discussing the facts of the ingredient. All of the commercials seem to take advantage of the fact that consumers are uneducated about the product and boast that HFCS is, “made from corn, doesn’t have artificial ingredients, and like sugar is fine in moderation.”
The president of the Corn Refiners Association, Audrea Erickson, said the campaign is to “set the record straight. Being led to believe that consuming sugar is better than high fructose corn syrup is not based on fact.”
Critics argue that sugar not being better than high fructose corn syrup is not the point. Some even say that the ads should advertise HFCS as just as bad as sugar, instead of saying it is just as good. “I think they’re hilarious, it reminds me of when big tobacco companies make half-hearted anti-smoking campaigns,” advertising senior Maren Jepson said. “The first time I saw the commercial, I was like is this for real? It seemed like a parody commercial because I didn’t think that HFCS producers would actually make a commercial supporting something that has been blamed for childhood obesity.”
As an advertising major, Jepsen has also learned what might motivate a company to promote a product that has been surrounded by controversy. “I understand the concept of puffery, jargon, and the idea of caveat em tore in ads being an advertising major, however, I also know that most consumers trust televised advertisements as they would trust the news so it’s definitely something that should be observed by advertising regulations boards or committees,” Jepsen said. She also said that HFCS is not something that she tries to avoid, but she does try to drink diet versions of things, because of the calories and not the corn syrup. “But that’s not to say that I don’t know it’s bad for me,” she said.
In an effort to offset the reach that the Corn Refiners Association has on consumers, other groups have sponsored spoof ads on YouTube to give their version of the facts on high fructose corn syrup. Besides making fun of the Corn Refiners Association, the commercials also give a new list of facts that contradict the facts from the televised commercials. For instance in one commercial, sponsored by TheHolisticOption.com, a brother and sister are eating breakfast together. The sister starts eating an apple and the brother warns her that it does not have HFCS in it and then goes on to say, “We need to do our part for the Corn Refiners Association, it’s only right. If we want to keep increasing the rate of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes, we’ll stop questioning its origin and the fact that by the time HFCS enters our bodies it’s already been genetically and chemically modified and bears no resemblance to the actual healthy corn plant that we’re told it initially came from. And since it’s in everything we eat, consuming it in moderation would be impossible.”
The most recent reports on HFCS have helped to put to rest the correlation between the obesity rate in Americans rising and the sweetener. The latest report put out by the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech says, “there is no reason to think high fructose corn syrup is worse than regular table sugar or any other sweetener as a contributor to obesity.” Another study put out by the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal found high obesity rates correlated with several other factors, such as the amount of time in front of the computer or television, or the consumption of dietary fat. The studied then said, “those who frequently consumed sweetened beverages — usually containing high fructose corn syrup — did not have a higher risk of obesity. One other study performed by the Nutritional and Scientific Affairs Group found that those who frequently consume sweetened beverages, like soft drinks and punch, had similar obesity rates compared to infrequent users.
“One thing that people don’t often consider is that we have teams of people doing research on subjects relating to corn,” Pollock said. “The Corn Refiners Association wouldn’t promote something that they hadn’t taken the time and effort to research first.”
In another test, the Center for Science in the Public Interests, a consumer advocacy group said, “there’s no nutritional difference between typical table sugar and high fructose.” They instead blamed obesity on the massive quantities that are marketed and consumed by Americans.
Registered dietitian Amy Hanover, who has three young children of her own, said far more research needs to be done on the subject. “A lot of people speaking in the media don’t have a legitimate background in health, it’s time in dive into what the professionals have to say about it,” Hanover said. “What we really need it more research to find out what the definite dangers of it are before we report things and alarm the general public.”
Hanover said that the commercials are misleading some people. “I don’t think consumers should be so quick to run with their campaign, researchers need to look at this whole subject deeper. There used to be positive commercials about margarine saying it’s better than butter. The fact is just because something is from a natural existing product it doesn’t mean that it’s going to react to the body in a healthy way,” she said. “The fact is the body doesn’t handle large amounts of fructose well. Liver function worsens and there is also evidence of high levels of fructose elevating levels of fats, which can cause heart disease.”
The process for making the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of corn was developed in the 1970s. Use of HFCS grew rapidly, from less than three million short tons in 1980 to almost 8 million short tons in 1995. During the late 1990s, use of sugar actually declined as it was eclipsed by HFCS. Today Americans consume more HFCS than sugar. The use of high fructose corn syrup has increased dramatically in recent decades. In 1974 Americans consumed 1.5 pounds of HFCS per year and in the year 2000 Americans consumed an average of 62.7 pounds per year.
[Hanover]HFCS is produced by processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose. It all sounds rather simple – white cornstarch is turned into crystal clear syrup. However, the process is actually very complicated. Three different enzymes are needed to break down cornstarch, which is composed of chains of glucose molecules of almost infinite length, into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
HFCS is actually cheaper than sugar. It is also very easy to transport because it is just piped into tanker trucks. This translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers. The development of the HFCS process came at an opportune time for corn growers. Refinements of the partial hydrogenation process had made it possible to get better shortenings and margarines out of soybeans than corn. HFCS took up the slack as demand for corn oil margarine declined. Today HFCS is used to sweeten jams, condiments like ketchup, and soft drinks. It is also a common ingredient in many so-called health foods. For a complete list of brand name products that HFCS can be found in visit http://www.accidentalhedonist.com/index.php/2005/06/09foods_and_products_containing_high_fruct.
If there is one fact that can be relied on, it is that high fructose corn syrup can be found in almost every processed food product on the market in America and consumers are ingesting more and more HFCS each year. Whether it is the same as sugar or not may not be the thing that consumers should immediately be concerned about. The heightening obesity rate in America seems to be more correlated to the amount of processed foods that Americans are consuming in general. If the true concern is getting healthier consumers should look to eating whole foods. If you are eating an apple instead of a bag of chips, you can be sure that whatever sugar your ingesting is natural.