The Sweetener Wars – HFCS Strikes Back

The health conscious and trendy public are a bit obsessed with the food they consume. This can be a good thing, to the extent that it results in a more healthful diet, but unfortunately those interested in improving their diet must wade through a great deal of misinformation before getting to accurate and helpful information.

For example, I recently gave a lecture (ironically on health information) at Google (you can view the entire talk here). Google is a progressive company that tries to help their employees stay healthy. They provide many snack stations and helpfully divide snacks into red, yellow, and green shelves. Employees can freely choose whatever snacks they want, but they are gently encouraged to choose from the more healthful green shelf and avoid the unhealthy red shelf. I noticed that beverages sweetened with sugar cane were placed on the green shelf, while those sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame or Splenda were slumming on the red shelf. It was ironic to see such a high-tech company falling for the naturalistic fallacy.

Sugar cane sweetened sodas are becoming fashionable, mainly to avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which many claim is associated with obesity and increased cardiovascular risk. Jim Laidler did an excellent job reviewing this controversy two years ago on SBM. To me this represents a general tendency to try to understand a complex question by oversimplifying, specifically by avoiding perceived “villains.” It may seem overwhelming to grapple with all the complex information involved in basic dietary health choices, like which beverages are best. Following simple rules, such as avoiding single ingredients that are perceived to be “bad,” therefore has an appeal. I also think this is part of the appeal of the naturalistic fallacy, a simple litmus test to what is good vs bad.

While there are some simple rules that are helpful and mostly accurate (calorie control, varied diet, eat enough plants), there are many more which are misleading and counterproductive. The naturalistic fallacy and fear of HFCS may lead many a Google employee, for example, to consume sugar cane sweetened soda with the false security that the calories won’t contribute to obesity.

A recent commentary in the International Journal of Obesity seeks to set the record straight with respect to HFCS. The authors point out that, in reality, there is very little difference between sucrose and HFCS. Sucrose is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. There are two main forms of HFCS in drinks and processed food: HFCS-42 and HFCS-55, indicating the percentage of fructose they contain. So one form has slightly less and the other slightly more fructose than sucrose. Available evidence indicates that this is not metabolically significant. In fact HFCS-55 is slightly sweeter than sucrose and so products with this sweetener may use less sweetener, and therefore contain fewer calories.

The authors write:

HFCS existed as a benign and essentially non-controversial product for over 35 years until 2004 when Bray, Nielsen and Popkin published a commentary suggesting a potential link between HFCS consumption and obesity.1 These authors buttressed their argument by charting the consumption of high fructose corn syrup along with the prevalence of obesity in the United States between 1970-2000,


Bray et al.1 used the temporal association as their primary evidence even though this is an example of an ecologic fallacy in which group data are extrapolated to individuals.

Later research showed that HFCS is not a unique cause of obesity (beyond the calories they contain), and there is no significant difference between the effect of different carbohydrate sweeteners on metabolism and weight gain. They also point out that there has been a lot of misleading research involving feeding animals a high carbohydrate diet consisting entirely of fructose, which cannot be extrapolated to HFCS consumption.

The scientific controversy is largely over. The Bray hypothesis, which was always weak, has not survived later research. But the meme that HFCS is harmful is out there, taking on a life of its own on the internet, and so the public controversy continues.

The disconnect between the scientific consensus and public perception remains a problem in many areas, not just with HFCS. We clearly need to do a better job overall of communicating scientific findings to the public – starting with scientists but also including journalists and the blogging community.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to stop misinformation from spreading on the internet, however. All we can do is get the accurate information out there.

Posted in: Epidemiology, Nutrition

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