Are we scorning corn but too sweet on sugar?

If a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet, then can we expect high fructose corn syrup to be more palatable to consumers if it changes its name to corn sugar?For years, simply invoking the name high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, left health gurus breathless with concern, sprouting warnings that it was the most deadly of all sugars. As a result, the public turned away from the sweetener in droves, and industry leaders followed suit with product reformulations that reduce or eliminate the unpopular ingredient.As a result of the backlash against the maligned sweetener, the U.S.-based Corn Refiners Association is in serious damage-control mode. In September, they applied to the U.S. Drug Administration to change the name from the harsh, technical, name of HFCS to “corn sugar,” a less threatening title with more natural connotations. Even without the USDA’s approval, the Corn Refiners have already moved ahead with commercials and a website, advertising the relative merits of corn sugar, at least when compared with other sweeteners.As the corn producers reason, HFCS is not as dangerous as it has been portrayed over the years, and therefore is the subject of unreasonable bias. While it will likely take two years for the application to be approved, industry pundits have noted that similar accommodations have been made for other ingredients with lousy monikers, most notably rapeseed oil, which saw its name changed to canola oil in 1988.But what of the corn refiners’ argument? Is it possible that HFCS isn’t the medical demon we once thought? Or is this a case of Big Industry trying to pull the wool over the eyes of average consumers?A history of high fructose corn syrupHigh fructose corn syrup is a sweetener comprised of 55% fructose and 45% glucose. In the U.S., it is known as HFCS, but in Canada, it appears on labels as glucose-fructose. While the name gives the impression of a rich fructose content, HFCS differs only marginally from table sugar, which itself is comprised of an even 50/50 split between fructose and glucose.Concern over the use of HFCS was first raised with the realization that its use in our diet over the past three decades (through pop and other sweetened foods), mirrored the spike in North American obesity rates. Since then, various studies have demonstrated a link between HFCS (fructose in particular), and undesirable metabolic changes, including increases in visceral body fat (the metabolically active fat that is packed around your organs and raises your risk of heart disease), insulin resistance (a state that precedes the development of type 2 diabetes), and elevations in triglycerides, a known risk factor for heart disease.HFCS vs. table sugarWhile studies on 100% fructose (which is used relatively infrequently as the sole source of sugar in a food) have been quite consistent in their results, the picture surrounding HFCS became less clear with a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2008. The study — the first, and to date the only study to directly compare the impact of various added sugars on triglyceride levels — found that HFCS had the same impact on post-meal triglyceride levels as table sugar. In other words, both forms of sugar were equally hard on your heart (note that pure glucose doesn’t have the same impact).Moreover, since sugar consumption in general is increasingly being linked with weight gain and cardiovascular disease risk, as well as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, then perhaps it is possible that we have been guilty of being too fixated on a single culprit in the form of HFCS.Sugar and our health: what happens next?While there is much research to be done to help us understand the subtle metabolic differences between each type of added sugar, the evidence to date suggests we should be focusing more on sugar as a whole rather than not just one particular type, as a potential health hazard. Consumers need to be aware that sugar listed in any form on a food label, be it sucrose, glucose-fructose, brown sugar (sucrose with added molasses), or high fructose corn syrup, should be treated with similar concern.And what to make of the Corn Refiners proposal? To a degree, they have a point, at least when compared with other added sugars. But to portray corn sugar as being a safe or healthy choice, just because it is refined from a so-called natural source, is industrial spin-doctoring at its very best.

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