High-fructose corn syrup fights back
If you don’t think high-fructose corn syrup is taking an economic hit, read on.
I went to the mailbox today and retrieved a package from the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), the lobbying group for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It was addressed to me in the same style that all my medical junk mail comes in, so I assume the above group bought a mailing list of primary care physicians from the American Medical Association, which sells such lists. I tore open the large envelope and looked at the contents, which are all pictured above. Having done a number of mailings in my lifetime, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what such a mailing costs. I would reckon that in the volume they purchased, these pieces probably set them back at least a couple of bucks apiece. Add the postage and the list rental and your probably looking at a couple of million dollars, if not more, to send this thing out to all the primary care docs in the country.
Inside this packet was a load of propaganda about the virtues of HFCS. And buried in one of the pages was the following statement that was the dead give away as to why this advertising surge:
Consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been dropping in recent years…
Which lets us know why the CRA has also made a couple of TV commercials that have played around the country and are being sent around virally as well. In case you haven’t seen them, these are presented below.
The main thrust of the ad package sent to me and these video commercials is that HFCS isn’t really any different than sugar. And, as long as it’s used in moderation, it’s no more harmful than sugar. Which, of course, is faint praise at best. But is it true?
Here, for what it’s worth, is my take on the HFCS issue.
There are basically three versions of HFCS: one containing 42% fructose, another containing 55% fructose and one containing 90% fructose. The most commonly used by far is the second, the one with 55% fructose. Since sucrose (table sugar) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, there really isn’t much difference, and most of the studies seem to bear that out.
There is one distinction between sucrose and HFCS, but in the studies I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to make a big difference. Sucrose is a disaccharide. In other words, it is a molecule made of a molecule of fructose hooked to a molecule of glucose. HFCS is a mix of monosaccharides (single sugar molecules): it has free fructose and free glucose. You would think that the fructose would absorb better as a monosaccharide since it doesn’t have to be cleaved away from a glucose molecule first. But, as I say, the majority of studies don’t seem to show any difference between the two in terms of blood sugar levels or metabolic effects.
There are a couple of things that I think are pernicious about HFCS. First, it is a vastly superior food additive as compared to sucrose above and beyond its sweetening power. It doesn’t crystallize, it mixes better, it provides more moisture, etc. And, in this country at least (thanks to subsidies for corn and price supports for sucrose), it is much cheaper to use. Consequently, HFCS finds its way into many products that contained no sweeteners before the advent of HCFS. So, since it’s development, we are eating more sweeteners overall because HFCS is in so many things. Second, the extra grams of fructose (as compared to glucose) don’t really matter all that much in people who don’t eat a lot of sweeteners, but it starts to add up as the sweet content of the diet goes up.
The last statistics I saw showed that the sweetener content of the average American diet was about 22 percent of calories. If you consider that the average caloric intake is about 2500 kcal, then you can figure that represents roughly 140 grams of sugar per day, which calculates to 70 grams of fructose and 70 grams of glucose if all the sweetener is sucrose or table sugar (which is what it was pre HFCS). Now, with about 70 percent of the sweetener coming from HFCS, these figures change. Now the the 55/45 fructose/glucose ratio of HFCS comes into play, and the fructose goes from 70 grams to 75 grams per day – an extra 5 gm. Does this matter? Who knows? But probably not. However, since I eat no sweeteners throughout the day, someone else has to eat double to keep the averages the same. And doubling all these figures gives an extra 10 grams of fructose per day. And if you figure overall sweetener intake has gone up since the advent of HFCS (which it has), then the heavy sweetener users are probably eating an extra 20-30 grams of fructose per day as compared to what they would have eaten 30 years ago. I suspect an extra 20-30 grams does make a difference.
If kids sit around MacDonald’s and slurp down a couple of Hugos, they could be getting an extra 10 or so grams of fructose right there, which is more than is found in a Paleo kind of diet in a day. And that’s just the extra fructose as compared to the Hugo being made with sugar instead of HFCS. It doesn’t count the 102 grams or so of fructose that would be the same if the drink were made with sugar.
Is it any wonder obesity is skyrocketing among teenagers? As I’ve written in this blog often, I spent a lot of time at MacDonald’s during my teenage years from when I was a Junior in high school on. But each drink I bought – there was only one size then, and it was tiny compared to the giant drinks of today – cost me an amount that was much higher in today’s dollars than it costs for one of the huge sodas available now. And I got only one for that amount. I couldn’t go back for refills. Unlimited refills are a consequence of the substantially lower price of HFCS as compared to sugar. Had I had access to unlimited refills, I wouldn’t have done any different than the kids today – I would have drunk one after another. But I was limited by my pocketbook.
Just to add a little comedy relief to this dreary story of the advertising jihad of the Corn Refiners Association, here is a YouTube parody of the HFCS commercials.