A Sweetener With a Bad Rap

Published: July 2, 2006

EVERY time Marie Cabrera goes shopping, she brings along her mental checklist of things to avoid. It includes products with artery-clogging trans fats, cholesterol-inducing saturated fats, MSG and the bogeyman du jour, high-fructose corn syrup. That last one, she says, is the hardest to avoid unless she happens to be shopping in the small natural-foods section of her supermarket.

As she pushed her shopping cart down an aisle of the Super Stop & Shop near her hometown of Warren, R.I., recently, Ms. Cabrera, a retired schoolteacher, offered her thoughts on why she steers clear of high-fructose corn syrup: "It's been linked to obesity, and it's just not something that's natural or good for you."

This is the perception that many consumers have of the syrup, a synthetic sweetener that has replaced plain old sugar and become a ubiquitous ingredient in American processed foods. High-fructose corn syrup provides the sweet zing in everything from Coke, Pepsi and Snapple iced tea to Dannon yogurt and Chips Ahoy cookies. It also lurks in unexpected places, like Ritz crackers, Wonder bread, Wishbone ranch dressing and Campbell's tomato soup.

In the news media and on myriad Web sites, high-fructose corn syrup has been labeled "the Devil's candy," a "sinister invention," "the crack of sweeteners" and "crud." Many scientific articles and news reports have noted that since 1980, obesity rates have climbed at a rate remarkably similar to that of high-fructose corn syrup consumption. A distant derivative of corn, the highly processed syrup was created in the late 1960's and has become a hard-to-avoid staple of the American diet over the last 25 years. It spooks foodies, parents and nutritionists alike. But is it really that bad?
Many scientists say that there is little data to back up the demonization of high-fructose corn syrup, and that links between the crystalline goop and obesity are based upon misperceptions and unproved theories, or are simply coincidental.

"There's no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity," said Dr. Walter Willett, the chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health and a prominent proponent of healthy diets. "If there was no high-fructose corn syrup, I don't think we would see a change in anything important. I think there's this overreaction."

Dr. Willett says that he is not defending high-fructose corn syrup as a healthy ingredient, but that he simply thinks that the product is no worse than the refined white sugar it replaces, since both offer easily consumed calories with no nutrients in them. High fructose corn syrup's possible link to obesity is the only specific health problem that the ingredient's critics have cited to date — and experts say they believe that this link is tenuous, at best.
Even the two scientists who first propagated the idea of a unique link between high-fructose corn syrup and America's soaring obesity rates have gently backed off from their initial theories. Barry M. Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that a widely read paper on the subject that he wrote in 2004 with George A. Bray, a professor of medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., was just meant to be a "suggestion" that would inspire further study.

"It was a theory meant to spur science, but it's quite possible that it may be found out not to be true," Professor Popkin said. "I don't think there should be a perception that high-fructose corn syrup has caused obesity until we know more."

Professor Popkin says that he and Professor Bray both decided not to raise the issue of high-fructose corn syrup for a beverage panel that they and four other scientists formed last year at the University of North Carolina. The panel was convened to provide clear guidelines to consumers about the nutritional risks and benefits of various beverages.

Rather than single out high-fructose corn syrup for derision, the panel focused on the proliferation of beverages with added sugars, regardless of what sweetener was used. Those beverages, the panel said, should be consumed at the lowest possible level, no more than eight ounces a day. "We felt there were much bigger issues and it would be a distraction," Professor Popkin said of high-fructose corn syrup.

As America's obesity problem has evolved into a major public health concern over the last five years, singling out high-fructose corn syrup as a singular culprit reflects, perhaps, society's early response to a vexingly complex issue. Scientists say part of the confusion about the ingredient's role in the nutrition debate stems from a basic misunderstanding: the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is actually high in fructose.

Studies have shown that the human body metabolizes fructose, the sweetest of the natural sugars, in a way that may promote weight gain. Specifically, fructose does not prompt the production of certain hormones that help regulate appetite and fat storage, and it produces elevated levels of triglycerides that researchers have linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

But the name "high-fructose corn syrup" is something of a misnomer. It is high only in relation to regular corn syrup, not to sugar. The version of high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas and other sweetened drinks consists of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, very similar to white sugar, which is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. The form of high-fructose corn syrup used in other products like breads, jams and yogurt — 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose — is actually lower in fructose than white sugar.

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School Beverage Guidelines

Helping schools provide healthy settings for their students is a top priority for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program will recognize schools that currently foster healthy environments and assist schools who need help doing so. These guidelines were developed to serve as the beverage criteria for the Healthy Schools Program. They will accelerate the shift to lower-calorie and nutritious beverages that children consume during the regular and extended school day.

These guidelines have been adopted by the Nebraska Beverage Association, American Beverage Association, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes as their new school beverage policy.

Elementary School
• Bottled water
• Up to 8 ounce servings of milk and 100% juice**
• Low fat and non fat regular and flavored milk* with up to 150 calories / 8 ounces
• 100% juice** with no added sweeteners and up to 120 calories / 8 ounces

Middle School
• Same as elementary school, except juice and milk may be sold in 10 ounce servings***

High School
• Bottled water
• No or low calorie beverages with up to 10 calories / 8 ounces
• Up to 12 ounce servings of milk, 100% juice**, light juice and sports drinks
• Low fat and non fat regular and flavored milk with up to 150 calories / 8 ounces
• 100% juice** with no added sweeteners and up to 120 calories / 8 ounces
• Light juices and sports drinks with no more than 66 calories / 8 ounces
• At least 50% of beverages must be water and no or low calorie options

Time of Day
All beverages sold on school grounds during the regular and extended school day. The extended school day includes activities such as clubs, yearbook, band and choir practice, student government, drama, and childcare / latchkey programs.

This beverage Policy does not apply to school-related events; such as interscholastic sporting events, school plays, and band concerts; where parents and other adults constitute a significant portion of the audience or are selling beverages as boosters.
* Milk includes nutritionally equivalent milk alternatives (per USDA), such as soy milk.
** 100% juice that contains at least 10% of the recommended daily value for three or more vitamins and minerals.
*** As a practical matter, if middle school and high school students have shared access to areas on a common campus or in common buildings, then the school community has the option to adopt the high school standard.

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