The New York Times and High Fructose Corn Syrup

In case you missed it this weekend, the New York Times had an article about the bad reputation of High Fructose Corn Syrup (login:accidental PW: hedonist) this weekend, and whether or not that reputation is deserved. Long time readers of this site are already going to know my response to this topic.

While I have many questions left unanswered from the Corn Refiners Association in regard to HFCS (like, how the heck can HFCS be considered a “natural product”), when it comes to obesity the producers of food have as much to answer for as much as the producers of HFCS. This may take some explaining.

Below is the pounds per capita consumption of sweetners here in the US, one in 1980 when HFCS took off, and in 2004.

Total caloric sweeteners
1980 – 120 lbs.
2004 – 142 lbs.

refined sugar
1980 – 84 lbs.
2004 – 61 lbs.

HFCS
1980 – 35 lbs.
2004 – 78 lbs.

others
1980 – 1
2004 – 1.4

(The above information comes from Marion Nestle’s book “What to eat”, which in turn came from the USDA)

What this shows, to me at least, is that the primary reason for the rise in obesity has more to do with the over-consumption of sugar than it does with how our bodies react to either table sugar or HFCS.

This doesn’t reduce the Corn Refiners culpability in the syrup consumption however. They have been more than happy to have their produce infiltrate any product willing to have them, regardless of if the product needs sweetener or not (Think canned tomato products). When the discussion turns to beverages (be they sodas, or fruit juices) HFCS plays a large part. If someone were to compare the amount of sugar put into beverages back in 1980 versus the amount of sugar put into drinks today, I sincerely doubt that there’s a one to one correlation, with my money on the more sugar being in beverages today than back in 1980.

The reasons the food producers put HFCS into their products is two-fold. First, humans migrate toward the sweet. Second, making products sweet with HFCS in order to make the more palatable to humans is a cheap proposition. Why is it cheap? This is where the New York Times completely whiffed on the topic.

The reason why HFCS is cheap is because the Federal government and the Corn Growers want it to be so. In my estimation, this is where responsibility starts. The way to put less sugar into foods is to make sweeteners a more expensive proposition to put into foods. But that will never happen with a government that subsidizes the corn industry.

There are other side conversations to be held in regard to sweeteners and HFCS. There are folks who regularly react badly to corn syrup consumption and their stories need to be addressed.

But as HFCS is the top dog in the sweetener world, they are quite rightly the number one focal point in any discussion about obesity. For any of them to say “Hey, it’s not our fault that we’re getting fatter” is flat out incorrect, no matter how nice a picture the NY Times wishes to paint.

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