Currently browsing posts about: HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)

Feb 2 2012

Are sugars toxic? Should they be regulated?

Nature, the prestigious science magazine from Great Britain, has just published a commentary with a provocative title–The toxic truth about sugar—and an even more provocative subtitle: Added sweeteners pose dangers to health that justify controlling them like alcohol.

The authors, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, are researchers at the University of California medical center in San Francisco (UCSF).

They argue that although tobacco, alcohol and diet are critically important behavioral risk factors in chronic disease, only two of them—tobacco and alcohol—are regulated by governments to protect public health.

Now, they say, it’s time to regulate sugar.  By sugar, they mean sugars plural: sucrose as well as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  Both are about half fructose.

Their rationale?

  • Consumption of sugars has tripled over the last 50 years.
  • Many people consume as much as 500 calories a day from sugars (average per capita availability in the U.S. is about 400 calories a day)
  • High intake of fructose-containing sugars induce metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, insulin resistance), diabetes, and liver damage.
  • Sugars have the potential for abuse.
  • Sugars have negative effects on society (mediated via obesity).
  • Too much of a good thing can be toxic.

Therefore, they argue, societies should intervene and consider the kinds of policies that have proven effective for control of tobacco and alcohol:

  • Taxes
  • Distribution controls
  • Age limits
  • Bans from schools
  • Licensing requirements
  • Zoning ordinances
  • Bans on TV commercials
  • Labeling added sugars
  • Removal of fructose from GRAS status

In a statement that greatly underestimates the situation, they say:

We recognize that societal interven­tion to reduce the supply and demand for sugar faces an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby, and will require active engagement from all stakeholders.

But, they conclude:

These simple measures — which have all been on the battleground of American politics — are now taken for granted as essential tools for our public health and well-being. It’s time to turn our attention to sugar.

What is one to make of this?  Sugar is a delight, nobody is worried about the fructose in fruit or carrots, and diets can be plenty healthy with a little sugar sprinkled here and there.

The issue is quantity.  Sugars are not a problem, or not nearly as much of a problem, for people who balance calorie intake with expenditure.

Scientists can argue endlessly about whether obesity is a cause or an effect of metabolic dysfunction, but most people would be healthier if they ate less sugar.

The bottom line?  As Corinna Hawkes, the author of numerous reports on worldwide food marketing, wrote me this morning, “there are plenty of reasons for people to consume less sugar without having to worry about whether it’s toxic or not!”

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.

Apr 29 2011

Sugar politics in action: Sugar sues HFCS

Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports: the Western Sugar Cooperative has just filed suit against the Corn Refiners and corn processors to stop them for falsely advertising HFCS as “corn sugar.”

Oh please.  Western Sugar is trying to claim that HFCS is not sugar, when it most definitely is.  To sugar associations, which represent cane and beet producers, sugar means sucrose (the white stuff on the table).

When the Sugar Association threatened to sue me for saying that soft drinks had sugar and nothing else (when they also contained HFCS), I patiently explained the biochemistry.  If you would like to read what they said, I’ve posted the threatening letter and my response at the bottom of this link. Here’s the biochemistry:

  • Sucrose: a double sugar of 50% glucose and 50% fructose linked together
  • HFCS: a syrup of about 45% glucose and 55% fructose, separated

The 5% differences are biologically insignificant and the body can’t tell them apart.

I never heard from the Sugar Association again, but I try to to remember to say sugars, plural.

Whether the FDA should allow the defendants to change the name of HFCS to Corn Sugar is a matter of some debate (see previous posts and comments on them).  The FDA will make its decision in due course.

In the meantime, this lawsuit is about marketing competition among sources of sugars (plural).  It has nothing to do with health.

Apr 14 2011

Lobbying in action: HFCS

It’s fun to watch lobbying in action, especially when it is so overt.  I’ve just been sent a copy of this “Dear Colleague” letter organized by the Corn Refiners’ Association.  The letter comes from two members of Congress.  It asks other members of Congress to write the FDA to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup to Corn Sugar.

From the Corn Refiners:

Dear [Member of Congress],

As your Member’s district has a strong interest in corn or corn sweetener, I am sending you this Dear Colleague letter for your consideration. Representatives Tom Latham and Daniel Lipinksi are circulating the letter, pasted below, for your boss’ consideration. The Corn Refiners Association, with support from the National Corn Growers Association has petitioned the FDA to allow use of the name ‘corn sugar’ as an alternative to High Fructose Corn Syrup on ingredient labels. This letter outlines our support for this petition.

From Representatives Tom Latham (Rep–Iowa) and Daniel Lipinski (Dem–Illinois):

Dear [FDA] Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg,

We write to express our support for a petition to use “corn sugar” as an alternate name for high fructose corn syrup on ingredient labels that would help consumers avoid confusion about the foods they buy. We endorse prompt review and approval of petition FDA-2010-P-0491, which was submitted by the Corn Refiners Association.

The petition requests the term “corn sugar” be permitted as an optional name for high fructose corn syrup on ingredient labels to avoid customer misconceptions. Evidence suggests that current terminology encourages misunderstanding in the marketplace regarding the nutritional profile and composition of corn sweeteners, and the alternate name would help dispel some of the confusion. According to a recent nationwide MSR Group survey, around 70 percent of Americans surveyed could not correctly identify high fructose corn syrup when presented with the American Dietetic Association’s definition. The same research found that “corn sugar” is a better alternative because it gives consumers a more accurate understanding of the product’s fructose content, calories and sweetness.

The product used in most foods—including yogurts, baked goods, condiments, and salad dressings—actually has the lowest fructose content of any sweetener on the market. Despite this fact, MSR Group’s research showed that most Americans believe high fructose corn syrup to be higher in fructose than table sugar; misinformation perpetuated by the substance’s name.

High fructose corn syrup is made from corn grown here in the United States by a critical industry that provides Americans thousands of good jobs. Equally important, it enables American consumers greater choice and affordability at the grocery store. Unfortunately, significant misperceptions about this ingredient have circulated in the media, in large part due to its name.

The American Medical Association has indicated that sugar and high fructose corn syrup have similar compositions, while the American Dietetic Association has determined that these two sweeteners are nutritionally equivalent and indistinguishable to the human body. These facts are sometimes lost in the confusion surrounding the ingredient’s name, and we believe that allowing use of the alternate term, “corn sugar,” would allow consumers to make accurate decisions about added sugars in their diets.

We support expeditious review and approval of this petition.

If enough members of Congress write such letters, the FDA is likely to pay attention, no?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 28 2011

Should the FDA allow HFCS to be renamed “corn sugar”? I vote no.

A colleague pointed out to me today that I am listed nine times on the Corn Refiners Association website as supporting its petition to the FDA to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar.

When the idea first came up, I didn’t think it mattered much.  But as I had to add more and more postscripts to my post on the issue, and as I read the comments on it, I was persuaded otherwise.   On balance, the arguments against changing the name outweigh the idea that it doesn’t matter (it matters to the Corn Refiners of course).

The FDA is collecting comments on the name change on its website.  I filed this comment today:

The FDA should deny the Corn Refiners petition to change the name of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to corn sugar.

I understand that the Corn Refiners Association uses my comments on its website to support its position. The 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.

Therefore, 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.

If you have thoughts about the petition, nothing could be easier than telling the FDA what you think:

1. Click on this link.

2. Look on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Click on “Submit a Comment.”  Fill out the form with your name and affiliation.  Type in your comment.  If a box comes up saying that you are taking too long, click OK and it will give you more time.

My understanding is that there is no particular deadline but rumors are that the FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2. You will see on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it. The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2.  You will see on the left side of the page “Results,”  “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3.  Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it.  The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

1. Click on the following link:

http://www.regulations.gov/#!searchResults;dct=O;rpp=10;so=DESC;sb=postedDate;po=0;s=FDA-2010-P-0491

2. You will see on the left side of the page “Results,” “Corn Refiners Association – Citizens Petition,” and on the right side a link that says “Submit a Comment.”

3. Just hit the “Submit a Comment” link, and then you just enter your name and affiliation, etc., type in your comment.

There is no formal comment deadline, but as usual, the sooner a comment is submitted, the more likely FDA will consider it. The best information I have is that FDA will consider all comments submitted by the end of this week.

Oct 26 2010

New study: HFCS-sweetened drinks higher in fructose than expected

I’ve been saying for ages that the sugar composition of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is no different from that of table sugar (sucrose).

Oops.  A new study in the journal, Obesity, actually measured the amounts and kinds of sugars in 23 kinds of HFCS-sweetened drinks.

The findings are summarized in a fact sheet:

  • The sugar content varied widely from amounts stated on labels.  Some drinks had 15% less sugar than labeled, but others had as much as 30% more.
  • On average, the drinks had 18% more fructose than expected.
  • Several brands of sodas seemed to be made with HFCS that is 65% fructose, not 55%.
  • The average amount of fructose in the drinks was 59%.

The press release points out one other finding.  You know how everyone thinks Mexican Coca-Cola is so much more delicious than American Coke because it is made with table sugar (sucrose), not HFCS?  Oops again.  The investigators could not find any sucrose in the Coke, but did find plenty of glucose and fructose.  This suggests that Mexican Coke is also made with HFCS (or it could also mean that the sucrose had been split into its constituent glucose and fructose).

To review the biochemistry: sucrose is a double sugar of glucose and fructose bonded together.  HFCS is glucose and fructose, separated.  The sucrose bond is quickly split in the intestine and its glucose and fructose are the same as those in HFCS.

The metabolic problems that result from sugar intake are mostly due to the fructose content.  Less is better for health.  More is better for the soft drink industry, however.  Fructose is sweeter than either glucose or sucrose, and sweet is what sells sodas.

At most, HFCS is supposed to be 55% fructose, as compared to the 50% in table sugar.  Most foods and drinks are supposed to be  using HFCS that is 42% fructose.  A percentage of 55 is not much different biologically than 50, which is why the assumption has been that there is no biologically meaningful difference between HFCS and table sugar.   This study, if confirmed, means that this supposition may need some rethinking.

The study names the beverages that contain 65% fructose: Coke, Pepsi, Sprite. It identifies Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and Arizona Ice Tea as containing close to 60% fructose.

If, in fact, the percentage of fructose is higher than advertised, it’s another good reason to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.

Addition and possible caution:  I’ve now heard separately from two experts on measuring sugars in beverages who point out serious flaws in the methods used in this study:

  • The results are based on one beverage sample, analyzed once.   Analytical methods invariably produce ranges of values and require multiple samples and analyses.
  • Measuring sugars in beverages is technically challenging and there are several possible methods, some of which give more accurate results than others.  Although the paper says the investigators used standard methods, it does not specify which.
  • The methods used did not seem to detect the small starches or maltose that are always present in HFCS.  If the methods “read” the little starches as fructose, the percentage could easily have been 59 rather than 55.
  • The drinks that contained 65% fructose were bottled drinks, and that is a concern.  The fountain drinks are mixed by the company–McDonald’s or Burger King–and could have been made too concentrated by whoever did the mixing.
  • The failure to find sucrose in Mexican Coca-Cola could be two to two reasons: the Coke is old and the sucrose “inverted” (split into glucose and fructose), or the company used HFCS instead of sucrose.

The bottom line remains the same: it’s best not to eat too much sugar or any kind.

Addition, October 27: Cara Wilking, an attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston, notes that this study raises the possibility that HFCS violates federal prohibitions against:

  • False and misleading food labeling
  • Food adulteration
  • False and misleading advertising

It will be interesting to follow how the lawyers deal with these issues.

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