by Marion Nestle

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

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.

Apr 23 2012

Gatorade: the new health food?

On April 20, I received a letter from a Gatorade PR person commenting on one of my posts reposted at the Atlantic Health/Food section.

After reading the letter, I searched my posts for references to Gatorade but can’t find anything specific other than my reporting the more than $100 million a year Pepsi spends to advertise this product.

So I’m guessing the letter must be referring to my comments about sports drinks in general:

Hi Marion –

I recently read your article in The Atlantic and would like to make sure you have the most current information. Your article criticizes sports drinks, advising against them because the sugars and carbs will make you fat. It also discusses the main sweetener in most sports drinks is high fructose corn syrup.

I would like to point out the carbohydrates and calories are functional in Gatorade, a sports drink, and are meant to provide fuel specifically for athletes.

The ingredients in Gatorade are backed by years of scientific research that support the need for carbohydrate sugars for fuel during training or competition and we only recommend Gatorade during the active occasion.

Also, high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient in any Gatorade products.

For those looking for a lower-calorie sports beverage, Gatorade offers G2, which delivers the same amount of electrolytes as original Gatorade but with half the calories. Gatorade also recently introduced G Series FIT 02 Perform, which is designed for a fitness athlete and has 10 calories per 8oz serving.

Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Best,

Katie Montiel, Gatorade Communications

I’m always happy to hear from interested readers.

And aren’t you glad to know that sugar is a functional (translation: “good-for-you”) ingredient in Gatorade?

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.

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