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Sweetness Versus Science

Introduction

Corn in the USA

The Science Behind America's Favorite Sweetener

The Debate

The Princeton Study

America's Return to Sugar

Conclusion

References & Links


   Comments & questions to:
   mvogel@macalester.edu


The Debate


    Scientific evidence has shaped the debate about HFCS in America’s food supply.  Scientific studies are used in this controversy in the strategies of all sides involved to support their interests.  This section will examine the main groups involved in this war of words and messages about HFCS and how they use scientific evidence to sway consumers.

HFCS Advocates:

    A very vocal group in this debate is comprised of the companies who have a clear economic incentive to prove that HFCS does not cause obesity, is not harmful to humans, and is no different from its main competitor, sugar.  A large part of this group is the Corn Refiners Association, made up of members of the wet milling industry, including Archer Daniels Midland Company, Cargill, Incorporated, Corn Products International, National Starch LLC, and several more similar companies.  Other advocates of HFCS are the food manufacturers who use large amounts of HFCS in their products like Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, Incorporated.  The goal of this group of producers of HFCS and food manufacturers is to convince consumers that HFCS and the products containing HFCS are safe to consume.

    These HFCS advocates employ many tactics to protect their product including framing HFCS as benign using science, framing the issue as one of personal choice causing obesity rather than HFCS, and targeting the public with a battery of advertisements.  In 2008 the Corn Refiners Association began a $25 million ad campaign to promote HFCS and fend off increasing consumer fear of their product or as they put it, “to change the conversation about high fructose corn syrup,” (Corn Refiners Association Advertising).  This ad campaign employs all three of the tactics listed above.  Their commercials attempt to calm consumers’ fears by saying HFCS is “made from corn, has the same calories as sugar or honey, and is fine in moderation,” (Corn Refiners Association Party TV Spot).  The commercials show people turning down products that contain HFCS but they are unable to explain why.  Then a friend, sibling, or girlfriend explains why HFCS is safe and healthy.  The commercials portray people who do not want to eat products containing HFCS as uninformed and completely mistaken.  At the end of each commercial the viewer is encouraged to visit the Corn Refiners Association’s website, sweetsurprise.com, to learn the facts about HFCS.  Watch the video below to experience it for yourself.




    Sweetsurprise.com is the vehicle for a plethora of scientific evidence and opinions from doctors, nutritionists, and journalists, that all support HFCS or maintain that it is nutritionally the same as sugar.  When HFCS is searched on google.com an ad for Sweet Surprise appears first.  The website presents quotes such as one from Dr. Arthur Frank of George Washington University’s Weight Management Program, that states, “high-fructose corn syrup is the chemical and nutritional equivalent to table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition and are metabolized identically,” (Sweetsurprise.com).  However, the studies and opinions they cite only offer a portion of all the studies conducted on HFCS. 

    When the website does mention research that questions the health risks related to eating HFCS it is usually to rebut the negative research by blowing holes through it’s arguments and research methods.  For example, Sweet Surprise mentions a study that linked fructose consumption with increased uric acid, which has been associated with metabolic syndrome.  The website briefly mentions the previous research before describing a study sponsored by Archer Daniels Midland Company that found that fructose intake had no impact on raising uric acid levels and therefore did not lead to increased health risks (Fructose and Uric Acid, SweetSurprise.com).  The HFCS advocates have put forward research to counter other scientific studies.  Additionally, HFCS advocates nod toward negative research before they aggressively refute it.  However, numerous competing studies confuse the consumer rather than clarifying the issue.

    Another framing tactic used at Sweet Surprise and by food manufacturers is to blame personal choice and over-consumption for obesity rather than the food products being consumed.  For example, an ad by Sweet Surprise showed two speech bubbles, one saying, “high-fructose corn syrup made me fat.”  Another bubble shows the other person responding, “no, going back for thirds made you fat,” (News & Press, SweetSurprise.com).  This tactic removes blame from the product and places it directly on the consumer.  Another example of this is an opinion article featured in the Wall Street Journal written by the CEO of Coca Cola Company, Muhtar Kent.  Kent writes, “If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out,” (Kent, 2009).  This way of framing the issue around physical activity places the blame for obesity solely on each person who is obese rather than the companies supplying them with high-calorie, HFCS laden products.   

    Another article that employed this tactic and cited many scientific studies appeared on FoodProcessing.com titled “HFCS (Highly Fattening or Crappy Science?): Empty calories, yes, but demon, no; the truth and friction behind high-fructose corn syrup.”  It concludes with the argument that “HFCS is a refined sugar … nothing more. It’s neither hero, nor villain. That there is a controversy over its specific role in obesity demonstrates how desperately we want a quick answer,” (Anthony, 6).  The author of the article, Mark Anthony Ph.D., argues that HFCS has become a scapegoat for greater problems and larger causes of the obesity epidemic.  HFCS advocates have framed this issue extensively with scientific evidence, quotes from doctors, and by pointing the finger of blame toward the people consuming their products.  Their evidence has flooded American television, magazines, and the Internet about this issue to protect their economic interests.

HFCS Critics:

    Critics of the widespread consumption of HFCS comprise a diverse group of people from newspaper columnists and investigative journalists to many scientists, doctors and nutritionists who have spoken out about HFCS.  These critics seek to educate Americans by publishing articles in newspapers, writing academic articles, publishing books, and giving talks and lectures about HFCS.  The strength of their arguments rests on their skill to explain the science behind questioning HFCS to citizens and consumers.

    A large component of this group is made up of nutritionists and doctors who have studied and seen first hand the effects of a diet loaded with HFCS.  Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, recently gave a talk concerning the obesity epidemic and its link to fructose.  Lustig argues that fructose is a poison and food manufacturers like Coca-Cola Company use it to mask other addictives like sodium and caffeine so American consumers will consume more of their products (Lustig, youtube.com).  As of this writing his talk has over 366,000 views on youtube.com despite the fact that his talk is less accessible to the average American because it relies heavily on knowledge of biochemistry to understand the damage fructose causes to the human body.  His tactic in this controversy is to conduct research and present his findings to educate anyone who is listening: his students, the media, and concerned consumers.  Below is his licture from youtube.com.


    Steve Ettlinger presents evidence about HFCS in a less complicated form in his book Twinkie, Deconstructed.  Without strongly denouncing HFCS, Ettlinger points out that many scientists and consumers are concerned about the adverse effects of consuming HFCS.  He goes on to point out that, “after thirty years of common use, the proper broad and long-term studies about the effects of HFCS still aren’t being done.  This leaves a big knowledge gap into which emotion and politics easily flow,” (Ettlinger, 70).  Ettlinger can give the reader more information but no definitive answers about HFCS, furthermore he points out that without enough strong evidence politics and emotion have played a substantial part in the controversy around HFCS.  His tactic is to simply raise awareness of the processed foods Americans consume everyday.

    Although these examples are only a sampling of the tactics used by critics of HFCS, it is important to understand that the movement questioning the use of HFCS is less organized than the expensive public relations campaign to protect the image of HFCS.  Critics challenge HFCS on all fronts scientifically with research on how it is metabolized, what toxins it may contain (carbonyls and mercury), and the effects of excessive consumption of it.  HFCS is also challenged when research is presented to the greater public.  The key to understanding the dangers of a diet high in HFCS is to understand why HFCS is worse than normal sugar.  That need for public understanding is why critics present research about HFCS and advocates of HFCS present contradicting research, question the science and research methods of other studies, and shift the focus from the chemical to other causes of obesity.

Citizens and Government Involvement:

     The controversy between critics and advocates of HFCS plays out in front of American citizens and government agencies, leaving those two groups to decide if HFCS is a safe substance to consume.  Citizens are the targets of commercials from the Corn Refiners Association, they are the targets of books and documentaries from critics of HFCS, and they are exposed to news stories about HFCS.  Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the target of scientific studies about HFCS because they have decided both the safety of the substance and whether or not a food product containing HFCS can be labeled “natural.”  The FDA and citizens decide the fate of HFCS through regulations on food products and consumer choice.

    The FDA acts as a neutral gatekeeper for new food products and has allowed and supported the use of high-fructose corn syrup.  A quote on the Corn Refiners Association website shows that time and time again the FDA has supported HFCS. It states that, “In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed HFCS as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996. The FDA noted that “the saccharide composition (glucose to fructose ratio) of HFCS is approximately the same as that of honey, invert sugar and disaccharide sucrose [table sugar],” (FDA Federal Register, SweetSurprise.com).  Additionally, a letter from the FDA to the Corn Refiners Association in July 2008 stated that the term “natural” could be used on a product containing HFCS if it is produced in a certain way (FDA, SweetSurprise.com).  All three of the FDA’s decisions have given HFCS legitimacy and allowed the expansion of their use in American products.

    Consumers, on the other hand, must wade through the information on HFCS and decide what products they want to consume.  Clearly, consumers are important because the Corn Refiners Association has targeted them heavily with their advertisements.  Both their buying power and influence over their peers give citizens a large role in this controversy.  For example, wikiHow, a ‘How To’ website that can be edited by anyone, offers seven steps on how to avoid high-fructose corn syrup (wikiHow, 2010).  This guide demonstrates that citizens want to not only avoid this food product but also help others avoid it.  Additionally, as further explored in the section “America’s Return to Sugar,” Americans are now pushing food manufacturers to offer food with sugar instead of HFCS.  Ultimately, it is the citizens who have to decide what products they want to eat and then live with the potential consequences of their decisions and therefore they are the main targets of campaigns for and against HFCS.

Corn on the Cob

Figure 1: Corn on the Cob, photo by Akash k






















Corn Sweetener Train Car

Figure 2: Corn Sweeteners Train Car, photo by boeke










































Soda Top

Figure 3: Soda Top, photo by Morton Fox










































Lab Rat

Figure 4: Lab Rat, photo by ressaure







































































Drinks without HFCS

Figure 5: New drinks that do not contain HFCS, photo by Great Beyond























Last updated:  5/7/2010

 


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