by Marion Nestle

Search results: hfcs

May 2 2014

HFCS politics, continued. Endlessly.

Sometimes I have some sympathy for the makers of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  They get such bad publicity.

The most recent example occurred at the White House during the annual Easter Egg Roll, and involved the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), Michelle Obama.

Meet Marc Murphy, a chef, drizzling honey over a fruit salad:

MURPHY: “Honey is a great way to sweeten things, it is sort of a natural sweetener.”

FLOTUS: “Why is honey better than sugar?”

MURPHY: “Our bodies can deal with honey…The high-fructose corn syrup is a little harder to … I don’t think our bodies know what do with that yet.”

FLOTUS: “Did you hear that?  Our bodies don’t know what to do with high-fructose corn syrup. So we don’t need it.”

OK class.  It’s time for a lesson in basic carbohydrate biochemistry.

  • The sugars in honey are glucose and fructose.
  • The sugars in HFCS are glucose and fructose.
  • Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together, but quickly unstuck by enzymes.

The body knows perfectly well what to do with glucose and fructose, no matter where it comes from.

Now meet John Bode, the new president of The Corn Refiners Association:

We applaud First Lady Michelle Obama’s commendable work to educate the public about nutrition and healthy diets… It is most unfortunate that she was misinformed about how the body processes caloric sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup…Years of scientific research have shown that the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup similar to table sugar and honey.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may recall that I have a little history with the Corn Refiners.

Bizarrely, I was caught up in their lawsuit with the Sugar Association.

And I was not particularly pleased to find several of my public comments about carbohydrate biochemistry displayed on the Corn Refiners website.  I did not want them used in support of the group’s ultimately unsuccessful proposal to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar.

I asked to have the quotes removed.  The response: “Your quotes are published and in the public domain.  If you don’t want us to use them, take us to court.”

I let that one go.

Enter John Bode, the Corn Refiners’ new president and CEO.  As it happens, I became acquainted with Mr. Bode in the late 1980s when he was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and I was working in the Department of Health and Human Services (yes, the Reagan administration).

To my pleasant surprise, he recently wrote me “warm greetings, after many years.”  His note assured me that my request to have the quotes removed would be respected and that they would soon disappear.  And so they have, except for a couple in some archived press releases.

Score one for John Bode.

Mr. Bode has his work cut out for him.  He has to teach the world carbohydrate biochemistry, restore public acceptance of HFCS, defend against Sugar Association lawsuits, stop the Corn Refiners from being so litigious, and do some fence-mending, all at the same time.

And he must do all this in an era when everyone would be better off eating a lot less sugar of any kind, HFCS included.

 

 

Feb 12 2014

Sugar v. HFCS: How I got involved in this lawsuit

Eric Lipton of the New York Times, who wrote Monday’s revelation of how the National Restaurant Association funds front groups to fight a raise in the minimum wage, has just topped that story.

Today, he writes an enlightening account of the legal battles between sugar and HFCS trade associations over marketing issues, in which I seem to have played a part.  The story quotes me:

Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and nutrition expert named in several documents [scroll down to "Using Marion Nestle"] as someone whom corn industry executives sought to influence, said the role both industries played was unfortunate.

“It is a plague on both of their houses,” she said, adding that she felt manipulated by the corn refiners industry, which used her statements to defend its products. “It is a disgusting performance neither should be proud of.”

Mr. Lipton sent me two of the documents last night (letters from Audrae Erickson of the Corn Refiners Association to Larry Hobbs of the Institute of Beverage Technologists, and to J. Justin Wilson of Rick Berman’s public relations arm of the Center for Consumer Freedom).

Here’s my recollection of how I ended up in this lawsuit:

Yes, I argue that the science shows that sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.  I repeated this in many blog posts over the years.

Sometime in 2010, Christopher Speed, then director of food and nutrition sciences at Ogilvy Public Relations, asked if I would meet with his client, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association (CRA).  I agreed, provided the CRA make a contribution to the NYU library’s food studies collection for cataloging expenses.  This turned out to be $1,500.  We met.

Shortly after that, my statements about the equivalence of sucrose and HFCS appeared on the Corn Refiners’ website.

I asked to have the comments removed.

Ms. Erickson’s response?  My comments were public and if I wanted them removed I could take the CRA to court.

That ended our correspondence.

From Mr. Lipton’s account I learned for the first time of the CRA’s involvement with the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous blog posts).

This explains what had been a great mystery.  The Center for Consumer Freedom has not exactly been my great fan.  It features me under ActivistCash, and usually has rather unpleasant things to say about my work and opinions.

But with respect to my opinions about sucrose v. HFCS, its comments were quite complimentary.  I should have realized that CRA was paying the Center, via Berman, to do this.

I was also fascinated to learn:

  • The CRA spent $30 million since 2008 on public relations.
  • Of that, $10 million funded research by James Rippe to prove HFCS is no different from sucrose (something you would learn from any basic biochemistry textbook).
  • Mr. Rippe got a $41,000 monthly retainer from the CRA.

Clearly, I should have asked for a lot bigger donation to our library.

Thanks Eric Lipton, for terrific investigative reporting.  Please do more of these.

Addition, July 28, 2014: I’m cleaning up files and just came across the two excellent articles in the Washington Post on the “soft lobbying” war between The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners, and on how “the sweetener wars got very, very sour.”  Sour, indeed.

Nov 27 2012

HFCS v. Diabetes: Correlation does not mean causation.

The latest study on the evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) so annoys the Corn Refiners Association that it broke the study’s embargo.

Reporters were not supposed to write about the study until today, but the Corn Refiners issued a press release yesterday: “Caution: New Study Alleging HFCS-Diabetes Link is Flawed and Misleading.”

The New York Times quickly posted its own pre-embargo account.

Why the fuss?  The study reports that countries with the highest levels of HFCS in their food supplies also have a 20% higher prevalence of diabetes in their populations.  This is a correlation between HFCS and diabetes.  It does not mean that HFCS causes diabetes—an important distinction.

But the authors’ press release (sent to me in an e-mail message) makes it sound like causation.  They say (also see Dr. Goran’s comments added to this post below):

HFCS appears to pose a serious public health problem on a global scale,” said principal study author Michael I. Goran…The study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that indicates HFCS consumption may result in negative health consequences distinct from and more deleterious than natural sugar.

This conclusion is based on their observations that the amounts of other sugars in the food supplies of countries with high and low HFCS are about the same.  But HFCS is a form of sugars that adds to total sugar availability.

The authors obtained information about diabetes and obesity prevalence and HFCS and other dietary factors in the food supply from existing sources of data, all of them questionable.   The data do not distinguish between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, for example, and the two different sources of data on diabetes prevalence give different results.

Inconsistencies abound.  For example, Mexico has more diabetes than does the U.S., but rather low HFCS availability (Mexicans prefer sucrose in their sodas).  Some countries with high diabetes rates report no HFCS availability at all.

As with all correlational studies, something else could be going on that causes HFCS, sugars of all types, and diabetes to increase.

That was the point I was trying to make when I spoke to Stephanie Strom of the New York Times:

 “I think it’s a stretch to say the study shows high-fructose corn syrup has anything special to do with diabetes,” Dr. Nestle said. “Diabetes is a function of development. The more cars, more TVs, more cellphones, more sugar, more meat, more fat, more calories, more obesity, the more diabetes you have.”

She noted that the study “falls right in the middle of the Corn Refiners fight with the Sugar Association,” a reference to the legal war being waged between the two industry groups over the marketing of high-fructose corn syrup.

The Corn Refiners press release quotes its president, Audrae Erickson:

This latest article by Dr. Goran is severely flawed, misleading and risks setting off unfounded alarm about a safe and proven food and beverage ingredient.  There is broad scientific consensus that table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent…The bottom line is this is a poorly conducted analysis, based on a well-known statistical fallacy, by a known detractor of HFCS whose previous attack on the ingredient was deeply flawed and roundly criticized.

Whew.

Yes, HFCS is sugar(s)—glucose and fructose.  So is table sugar (sucrose).

But the bottom line goes for both: Everyone would be better off eating less sugar(s).

Addition to post: Dr. Goren wrote two e-mails to me in response.  With his permission, they follow.

Hi Marion,

I saw your comments in the NYT article that was published about our global HFCS paper.

You say that: “Diabetes is a function of development. The more cars, more TVs, more cellphones, more sugar, more meat, more fat, more calories, more obesity, the more diabetes you have.”

I wanted to mention that an often overlooked issue is that obesity is not the only factor contributing to type 2 diabetes and even the causal link between obesity and type 2 diabetes is unknown. Other factors include inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance etc. In the study that was done with my colleague at the University of Oxford, the countries with high and low/zero HFCS were matched for obesity levels as well as total calorie and sugar availability. In essence this allowed us to isolate the effects of HFCS as a contributing factor, independent of obesity and the other factors that you mention that are related to obesity. I agree, as stated in the paper, that the ecological type analysis has its limitations, but in the case of HFCS it provided an opportunity to study its effects at the broader macro level. We did this because it is impossible to evaluate individual levels of HFCS consumption because we don’t know specifically how much is added to food/beverages.

The main critique of our study from the corn refiners association is based on their assertion that fructose and glucose are the same when in fact its textbook knowledge that their metabolic fate/pathways are very different. The CRA now says that sucrose and HFCS are “almost identical”. Almost identical acknowledges that they are different in some way which they are. Its a fact that HFCS-55 has at least 10% more fructose than sucrose and our prior study in which we analyzed popular beverages showed this was on average 20% and in some cases as much as 30% higher fructose. The key question in my mind is whether the additional fructose in HFCS is enough (even if its only 10% higher) to tip the balance towards the negative metabolic effects of fructose on health. This is at the heart of the issue and should be the focus of investigation. Our study, with its accepted limitations, adds to the growing body of evidence that the additional fructose coming from HFCS may indeed be enough to tip this balance.

His second message:

Thanks for responding, and yes, I’d be pleased if you added this to your blog –  - I think this will be a good addition. The question of whether the extra 10% fructose matters is indeed critical.

We also by the way did analyze total sugars versus diabetes in a much larger data set of 200 countries but the reviewers asked for that to be taken out which we did because we also thought the focus on HFCS would be unique. We also did see a clear relationship between total sugar and diabetes – some of that relationship was mediated by obesity but there also was an independent association between total sugars and diabetes. So, I agree – - both obesity and total sugars contribute to diabetes – - but I also believe, as shown in our paper, that HFCS has a separate link, and that this is probably due to the higher fructose content in HFCS.

Also, you mentioned in your blog that the different estimates of diabetes gave different results. That’s not really correct. The estimates of diabetes were different from each other, but regardless of which diabetes estimate we used, we still found a consistent association between HFCS and the 2 prevalence estimates of diabetes as well as fasting glucose. So in essence the results were validated using different prevalence estimates of type 2 diabetes.

Sep 25 2012

HFCS vs. Sugar, and vice versa: eat less of both!

I’ve been trying to keep track of the legal dispute between the Corn Refiners (representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup—HFCS) and the Sugar Association, which represents growers of sugar beets and cane (sucrose).

Recall: HFCS is glucose and fructose separated, whereas sucrose is glucose and fructose stuck together.  Because they are biochemically pretty much the same (enzymes that split sucrose act quickly), they have the same effects in the body.

So the dispute is about market share, not science.

First, the Corn Refiners tried to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”  The FDA turned this down (as well it should).

Then, the Sugar makers sued the Corn Refiners, claiming that the Corn Refiners’ public education marketing campaign was false and misleading because it promoted HFCS as “natural” (It’s not, in my opinion) and nutritionally and metabolically equivalent to other forms of sugar (which it is).

Then, the Corn Refiners countersued on the basis that Sugar lobbying groups are tricking the public into believing that sucrose is healthier than HFCS (it’s not) and trying to create a “health halo” for sucrose (absurd).

As Food Navigator puts it, the two associations are “trading insults.”

While all this is going on, a group called Citizens for Health has filed a petition with FDA to put the concentration of fructose in HFCS on package labels.  HFCS is usually 42% or 55% fructose (it is 50% in sucrose).  These forms of HFCS are considered by FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

The petition argues that some products have more fructose—65% or 90%—and should say so.

All sugars should be consumed in small quantities, but fructose especially so.

The Corn Refiners say that Citizens for Health, which sponsors a website called foodidentitytheft.com, is funded by the Sugar Association.

Also in the meantime, a new study says HFCS has nothing whatsoever to do with obesityGuess who sponsored the study.

Advice for today: eat less sugar(s), meaning sucrose, glucose, fructose, table sugar, HFCS, corn sugar, and all the other euphemisms food companies use to deflect attention from how much their products contain.

May 31 2012

FDA says HFCS is HFCS; it is not corn sugar

Cheers to the FDA.  It just said a firm no to the Corn Refiners’ petition to be allowed to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) “corn sugar.”

The FDA’ s rationale:

  • Sugar is solid, dried, and crystallized.  Syrup is liquid.  HFCS is liquid.  Therefore, it is syrup, not sugar.
  • Corn sugar already has a regulatory definition: dextrose (glucose).  HFCS contains fructose as well as glucose.  Therefore, it is not corn sugar.

As I mentioned earlier, I filed comments to the FDA on the Corn Refiners’ petition:

The [Corn Refiners'] website quotes comments I have made to the effect that HFCS is biochemically equivalent to sucrose. It is. But I do not believe that biochemical equivalence is a good reason for the FDA to agree to a name change at this point.

It is highly unlikely that public misunderstanding of nutritional biochemistry and the differential physiological effects of glucose vs. fructose will be addressed and corrected by changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar.

…the name change is not in the public interest. Its only purpose is to further the commercial interests of members of the Corn Refiners, and that is not one the FDA should be concerned about.

I was referring here to the legal and public relations wrangling between the Sugar Association, which represents the growers of cane and beet sugar (sucrose), and the Corn Refiners.

I have complained previously about the in-your-face behavior of the Corn Refiners in attempting to protect its share of the sweetener market: its strange advertisements; its use of my quotes (they told me the quotes are in the public domain and if I don’t like it I can sue them); its aggressive lobbying; its stated intention to use the term “corn sugar” whether the FDA approves it or not.

The Sugar Association’s behavior is not much better.  It has taken the Corn Refiners to court over the naming issue.

I was amused to receive two e-mails this week from its public relations firm complaining about the Corn Refiners’ clumsy PR response to a UCLA  study ostensibly showing that HFCS makes rats “fat and stupid.”  This study, however, did not compare the effects of sucrose and HFCS and its results, even if confirmed, could apply to any source of fructose.

The second e-mail sent links to the FDA’s decision and the Sugar Association’s response.

The FDA’s ruling represents a victory for American consumers,” said Dan Callister, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation. “It reaffirms what most consumer advocates, health experts and policy officials have been saying all along: only sugar is sugar. HFCS is not sugar. The next step is for the federal court to end the CRA’s misleading propaganda campaign.

Sugars, plural, are sugars.  Sucrose is glucose and fructose.  So is HFCS.

Everyone would be better off eating a lot less of both.

And that brings me to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to promote the health of his constituents: banning any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces from restaurants, movie theaters, and street carts.

I can’t wait to see how the Beverage Association deals with this one.

Addition June 1: Rosie Mestel of the L.A. Times has an excellent account of this in which she quotes from these comments.  Her story is accompanied by a PR photo from the Corn Refiners Association.  What are these people thinking?

Ad campaign by the Corn Refiners Assn.

Dec 1 2011

Sugar vs. HFCS, continued

The increasingly absurd fight between the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) seems never to end.

Trade associations representing growers of sugar cane and sugar beets (sucrose–the white stuff on the table) have gone to court to charge that corporate members of the Corn Refiners Association (HFCS) are behind a “conspiracy” deliberately designed to “deceive the public.”  Why?  Because—in an equally absurd move—they want to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar. 

The sucrose-growers lawsuit argues Corn Refiners conspired to engage in false advertising as part of a $50 million campaign to promote HFCS by changing its name to “corn sugar,” thereby implying that HFCS is equivalent to “real” sugar from cane and beet plants.

Oh please.  Sucrose is glucose and fructose linked together.  HFCS is glucose and fructose separated.  Both are sugars (note: plural).  Sucrose is extracted from sugar beets and cane in a series of boiling, extracting, and cleaning steps.  HFCS does the same from corn, but uses one more enzyme so is somewhat less “natural,” but so what?

Both are sugars and empty calories, and everyone would be better off eating less of both.

What’s really at issue here is the encroachment of HFCS into sucrose territory.  Americans used to eat much more sucrose than HFCS.  Now we consume about 60 pounds of each of them a year—way too much of either.

My opinion: the name change is frivolous and so is the lawsuit. 

Both are a waste of time and distract from the real message: eat less sugar(s).

Oct 27 2011

Sugar 1, HFCS 0, at least for the moment

The public relations firm for the Sugar Association, Levick Strategic Communications, sent me a press release celebrating the victory of sugar producers against corn refiners over the question of whether high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be renamed “corn sugar.”

A federal judge ruled that the case brought by the Sugar Association against the Corn Refiners can proceed to trial. If you want the details, see the  judge’s “order denying in part and granting in part defendents’ motion to dismiss”, and “order granting defendents’ motion to strike.”

I cannot even begin to tell you how funny I think all this is.

The Sugar Association represents growers of sugar beets and cane.  They produce table sugar—sucrose—a double sugar composed of glucose and fructose linked together.  In the body, sucrose is quickly split to glucose and fructose.

The Corn Refiners represent processors of corn (obviously).  They produce HFCS, a syrup made of glucose and fructose.

From a biological standpoint, glucose and fructose are the same no matter where they come from.  Biochemically, sucrose, glucose, and fructose are all sugars.

HFCS used to be a lot cheaper than sucrose, but what with all the corn used for ethanol, the price gap has narrowed.  As a result, and because HFCS has gotten a bad reputation, companies are dropping it in favor of sucrose.  The Corn Refiners are upset about that and think a name change would help.

The Sugar Association thinks it’s just great that HFCS has a bad reputation and does not want table sugar to be confused with corn sugar.

Both of these trade associations are acting totally in self-interest.  Neither cares at all about public health.  The lawsuit is entirely about corporate profits, not public welfare.

The Sugar Association is famous for protecting a system of quotas and tariffs that transfers money from American consumers to the coffers of sugar producers.  Its aggressive actions in its own self interest are legendary (see, for example, its threatening letter to me when Food Politics came out—this and my reply are posted at the end of the About section).

And I’ve written previously about the Corn Refiners’ consistently bad self-interested behavior.

Both trade associations behave with appalling disregard for the public.

In this case, the public interest is clear: everyone would be healthier eating less table sugar and HFCS.

 

Sep 21 2011

Corn Refiners Association to FDA: we will call HFCS “corn sugar” whether you like it or not

 I worry a lot about the ability of the FDA to set limits on the excess marketing practices of food companies.  The latest cause for worry is the seemingly trivial fuss over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

HFCS is not especially high in fructose (its fructose content is about the same as that of table sugar) but the term has gotten a bad reputation and food companies have begun to replace this sweetener with table sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association, the trade association that protects the interests of the makers of HFCS thinks it can solve that problem by getting the FDA to allow a name change from HFCS to “corn sugar” (see my previous comments on this issue).  The FDA has this request under consideration. 

In the meantime, the Corn Refiners are using “corn sugar” in advertisements on two websites, cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the FDA is taking a dim view of this behavior.   In a letter seen by the AP (but which I cannot find on the FDA website), the FDA has asked the Corn Refiners to cease and desist using “corn sugar” until the term receives regulatory approval.  

According to the AP account, which I have been unable to verify, the FDA:

Has no regulatory control over the corn association’s advertising because it is not selling a product but promoting an industry. The federal agency can prosecute companies that incorrectly label ingredients and [FDA official Barbara] Schneeman wrote that the FDA may launch enforcement action against food companies listing high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.”

The AP also said that internal FDA documents “indicate high-level skepticism” over the proposed name change. 

This, no doubt, is because “corn sugar” already exists as a regulatory term for dextrose which, in turn, is another name for the sugar, glucose, derived from corn. 

The AP says:

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, wrote in an internal email that a previous attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just “corn syrup” was misleading, could have robbed consumers of important information and would invite ridicule.  “It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it,” Taylor told colleagues in an email dated March 15, 2010.

Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar is about marketing, not public health. If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.

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