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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.
This question came in from Lourdes, a reader:
Would you please comment on these cases and the decisions regarding the issue [evaporated cane juice, apparently].
Evaporated cane juice is the food industry’s latest attempt to convince you that crystallizing sugar by this particular method will make you think it is:
- Natural and healthy.
- Better for you than table sugar.
- Much better for you than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Maybe, but it’s still sugar.
Over the past few years the term “evaporated cane juice” has started to appear as an ingredient on food labels, most commonly to declare the presence of sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup. However, FDA’s current policy is that sweeteners derived from sugar cane syrup should not be declared as “evaporated cane juice” because that term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice…. FDA considers such representations to be false and misleading…because they fail to reveal the basic nature of the food and its characterizing properties (i.e., that the ingredients are sugars or syrups) as required by 21 CFR 102.5.
The FDA opened the matter up to public comment last month. In the meantime, evaporated cane juice is in the courts, where more and more food regulation seems to be taking place days except that judges are balking.
It’s a perfect Catch 22: The courts won’t rule until the FDA issues regulations. The FDA won’t issue regulations while the matter is in the courts.
The bottom line? As NPR puts it, “Sugar by any other name tastes just as sweet — and has just as many calories.”
To repeat: Evaporated cane juice is sugar. Cane sugar is sugar. All forms of sugar have calories, even when Kale flavored (thanks to Jill Richardson for sending this along).
What is a poor eater to do?
The latest meta-analysis of the effects of saturated fat on heart disease finds—none.
This study, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine (doi: 10.7326/M13-1788), examined the results of
- 32 observational studies involving 530 525 participants
- 17 observational studies involving 25 721 participants
- 27 randomized controlled trials involving 103 052 participants
Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.
This meta-analysis follows an editorial in a Mayo Clinic publication (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.006) by authors who argue that saturated fat is not the problem. Carbohydrates (e.g., sugars) are the problem. The authors argue:
- Effects of saturated fat on blood cholesterol are weak and transient.
- Meta-analyses have found a lack of an association between heart disease mortality and saturated fat intake.
- Stroke studies find that patients with stroke had eaten less saturated fat.
- Long-term studies find that people with the highest dairy consumption have the lowest mortality risk, and also low diabetes and heart disease.
- Dietary trials find trivial or no benefit at all from decreasing saturated fat and/or increasing intake of polyunsaturated fat.
On this basis, they say that advice to reduce intake of saturated fat is irrational.
The New York Times asked several experts for comment on the meta-analysis, among them Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard:
The single macronutrient approach is outdated…I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients…people should try to eat foods that are typical of the Mediterranean diet, like nuts, fish, avocado, high-fiber grains and olive oil.
Dr. Hu was referring to a large clinical trial (not included in the meta-analysis), which concluded that a diet with more nuts and extra virgin olive oil reduced heart attacks and strokes when compared with a lower fat diet with more starches.
The Times story contained a reminder that the American Heart Association issued dietary guidelines last year to “restrict saturated fat to as little as 5 percent of their daily calories, or roughly two tablespoons of butter or two ounces of Cheddar cheese for the typical person eating about 2,000 calories a day.”
How to make sense of this?
I vote with Frank Hu that dietary advice should focus on food, not nutrients.
Focusing on one or another nutrient—fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sugar—takes foods out of their caloric as well as dietary context.
My guess: If you balance food intake with physical activity and are not overeating, the specific proportion of fat, carbohydrate, and protein won’t matter nearly as much.
While the arguments about fat v. sugar go on and on: Eat your veggies, vary the foods you eat, don’t gorge, and enjoy what you eat.
While I’m on the topic of sugars (see yesterday’s post), the World Health Organization (WHO) has just called for public comment on proposed new guidelines for intake of “free” (added) sugars:
- Added sugar intake should be less than 10% of total calories per day (50 grams for a 2000 calorie-a-day diet)
- Intake below 5% of calories would confer additional benefits (25 grams)
Although the announcement casually mentions that the draft guidelines reaffirm a previous WHO sugar guideline from 2002, it just as casually fails to mention what happened to that guideline.
I, however, have perfect recall, particularly because I wrote about these events in the Afterword to the 2013 edition of Food Politics:
In the early 2000s, the World Health Organization (WHO) began work on a global strategy to reduce risk factors for chronic disease, obesity among them. In 2003, it published a research report that advised restricting intake of “free” (added) sugars to 10% or less of daily calories. Although this percentage was similar to that embedded in the USDA’s 1992 Pyramid (7–13% of calories, depending on total intake), sugar industry groups strenuously objected, enlisted senators from sugar-growing states to pressure the DHHS secretary to withdraw funding from WHO, and induced the DHHS chief counsel to send a critique of the report to WHO that had essentially been written by industry lobbyists. When released in 2004, WHO’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health omitted any mention of the background report or the 10% sugar recommendation.
“Strenuously objected” vastly understates what happened.
Why was the sugar industry so concerned? One 12-ounce Coke or Pepsi contains about 40 grams of sugars. Have one, and you’ve just about done your added sugars for the day.
WHO must either think that the research basis of the 10% sugar guideline is much stronger now (see references below), or that the political landscape has shifted so far in the direction of reducing sugar intake that governments will ignore industry groups this time.
I’m not so sure. I think WHO needs all the help it can get with this one.
Submit comments here. Now!
Reports commissioned by WHO
- Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies
- Effect on caries of restricting sugars intake: Systematic review to inform WHO guidelines
What happened to the previous guideline
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.
A group of public health experts based mainly in Britain have announced a new anti-sugar campaign.
Called Action on Sugar, it is modeled on Great Britain’s campaign to get the food industry to gradually reduce salt in processed foods—voluntarily. That campaign is considered to have led to a reduction of 25% to 40%.
Action on Sugar’s objective: Reduce sugar in packaged foods by 20% to 30% over the next 3 to 5 years.
Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in processed foods. Action on Sugar is supported by 18 expert advisors.
As one of the experts put it, “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focused on profit not health”—just like the tobacco industry behaves.
You have to love the British press:
Enjoy the weekend!
Samira Kawash. Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure. Faber & Faber, 2013.
In this delightful, intriguing account of candy in the United States, Samira Kawash argues that we must stop vilifying this sugary treat and start taking it more seriously—as a cultural icon, a marker of gender identity, a prototype of the marketing of processed foods, a source of pleasure for children and adults, and for good or ill, a contributor to daily diets.
Candy, she correctly points out, is not all that different from many other sugar-laden foods and deserves its rightful place in American diets—in moderation, of course.
Kawash, who writes the candy professor blog, wanted to call this book “In Defense of Candy,” which is what it is. I loved her writing, her originality, and her sense of humor. For example, she makes the connection between views of “sweet, trivial people (women and children) and sweet, trivial candy” and observes that “So much of what we call food today is really candy.”
And so it is.