If you find yourself in deep public relations trouble, simply change your name. Last week, the Corn Refiners Association had a sweet proposition for the FDA: they asked for permission to change the name “high fructose corn syrup” to “corn sugar.” Poor high fructose corn syrup is cast as the new villain responsible for all of our nutritional woes. According to the market research firm NPD Group, about 58 percent of Americans say they are concerned that high-fructose corn syrup poses a health risk. Sales of high-fructose corn syrup are at an incredible 20-year low. The problem is that the name “corn sugar” is deceptive, because high-fructose corn syrup does not “naturally” come from corn.
The New York Times featured an article about this very matter in their science section last week. The article makes the claim that HFCS is in fact, no different from cane sugar, and that the anxiety surrounding it is unnecessary and misdirected. They say the major difference is that for table sugar, the sugar from beets and cane essentially comes right out of the plants. Corn syrup, meanwhile, “is heavily processed, using enzymes to turn cornstarch into glucose and then fructose.” Another major difference is that in HFCS, the individual glucose and fructose molecules are chemically separate before you ingest them. In table sugar, these same two molecules are chemically bonded, forming a disaccharide (two-molecule sugar) that is broken apart inside the body.
The Corn Refiners Association maintains that high fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a natural grain product. They say it contains no artificial ingredients or color additives, thus meeting the FDA’s requirements for use of the term “natural.” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, disagrees. He says “[High fructose corn syrup] is not natural. Even though glucose and fructose occur in nature, HFCS does not occur in nature. Cornstarch is converted to glucose, some of which is then converted to fructose. We’ve said that if a substance’s molecular structure has been changed in a factory, it can’t be considered natural.” The Corn Refiners Association, when asked to speak to this issue, had no comment.
Some experts maintain that, from a health standpoint “sugar is sugar.” With regard to obesity, research suggests that whether high fructose corn syrup is natural or unnatural –or whether it’s named high fructose corn syrup or corn sugar–is beside the point. (Although its worth mentioning that much of the research on this topic is sponsored by the food industry, most independent health experts do tend to agree with this point.) Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup contain the same number of calories. Jacobson points out, “Consumers have been misled into thinking that high-fructose corn syrup is particularly harmful. Chemically, it’s essentially the same as sugar. The bottom line is we should be consuming a lot less of both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.”
All of this hype over high fructose corn syrup and the subsequent public backlash points to a larger issue with regard to nutrition misinformation in the public. When we become preoccupied with a specific ingredient, we lose sight of the bigger picture. All of this focus on high-fructose corn syrup has distracted us from the fundamental issue at hand. Critics think that HFCS is uniquely harmful, stating that the emergence of high fructose corn syrup correlates with rising obesity rates. However, they are failing to consider the myriad of factors contributing to the obesity epidemic. While the health effects of over-consumption of HFCS warrants further research, the health effect of all added caloric sweeteners should not be overlooked.
The problem with high fructose corn syrup may not be exclusively in the syrup itself, but rather, in what this ingredient indicates. Everyone’s always looking to pinpoint a single food component as the culprit: first it was trans fat, now it is high fructose corn syrup. Individually, these ingredients may have negative impacts on our health, but the most crucial thing to recognize is what they have in common: they are both molecularly altered compounds that are/were ubiquitous in many of the foods we eat. We need to shift our focus from high fructose corn syrup to the food itself: where is this food coming from, how is it being processed, and most importantly, is it even food?
Going forward, as we happen upon the latest nutrition trends and additives, and facts emerge and contradict one another, one thing will remain constant: for optimal health, experts agree that the best advice is to eat real food. In other words, dine on food that comes from a farm, not a factory.
As far as the name-change goes, according to the Huffington Post, the name “corn sugar” is already taken, so the Corn Refiners Association is going to have to come up with another euphemism.