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CBS Cornball on Obesity

High fructose corn syrup is addictive to journalists covering obesity

Americans can resist anything but temptation – especially if someone or something else can be forced to take the blame. In the great unspoken morality play of obesity, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is, however, a convenient villain, as a recent example from CBS shows.

Yesterday, CBS Morning News anchor Susan McGinnis opened a segment with the following (the same contents were repackaged for further segments with Charles Osgood):

“A fight is brewing over a common sugar substitute: high fructose corn
syrup. Believe it or not, it's in practically everything Americans eat, and
some claim it could be the main culprit behind obesity.”

The evidence came from Kenya Clarke, a woman who stopped drinking six cans of Pepsi and other artificially sweetened drinks a day and then, over time, lost 115 pounds.

As CBS reporter Elizabeth Kaledin noted:

“High fructose corn syrup began to replace sugar as a sweetener in soft drinks in 1980. Manufacturers love it for its sweet taste and easy mixing. And because it's made from corn, which is subsidized by the government, over time high fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in many items on the grocery list--sweet foods like cookies, candies and sweet cereals. But it also turned up in unexpected places like Special K and yogurt. While trying to cut back, Kenya learned it's everywhere.”

Then it was time to wheel on an expert (actually a journalist), Michael Pollan, who claims that

“The amount of calories we eat per day has gone up 200 calories a day since the 1970s. So a lot of that extra baggage we're carrying around is because sweetness has gotten so cheap.”

Kaledin also noted that

“Some scientists believe that high fructose corn syrup is actually digested differently from regular sugar, helping to push up the obesity rate.”

So here’s the logic of CBS’s narrative: A dieter cuts out soft drinks sweetened with HFCS and loses weight; HFCS replaced the more expensive sugar in the 1980s, and people began to consumer more sweetened fdrinks because more sweetened drinks could be purchased for the same cost; obesity rates then went up as a result - and possibly because HFCS is digested in a different way to sugar that ensures more sugars will be stored as fat. 

Unfortunately, we were told nothing about other aspects of Ms. Clarke’s diet or exercise regimen, so there may be other factors correlating with her weight loss besides the elimination of cola. Moreover, six cans of soda per day equals a lot of calories, no matter what the sweetener. Nutritionists recommend no more than one eight-ounce can per day. Would Ms. Clarke have consumed less cola if cola was still sweetened with sugar? We can never know - but the net calorific outcome would have been the same if she had: High fructose corn syrup is not actually high in fructose – and is no different in calorific effect than regular sugar.

So are we all carrying extra calories because the widespread use of HFCS allowed bigger portion sizes without a corresponding increase in cost? That’s a tricky argument – and unprovable, because we can’t see what would have happened if HFCS had never been invented. Certainly, the consumption of HFCS increased from 1980 onwards, but increases in portion sizes have occurred in foods that have no HFCS. It’s hard to imagine that the economic rewards of a cheap “big gulp” forced restauranteurs to increase the portion sizes of everything else.

As to the question of whether HFCS is metabolized in a way that makes it more fattening than sugar, CBS didn’t name the scientists who made this claim or cite their work in anything but the most vague way. This is a shame, as research was presented at this year’s annual meeting of the Endocrine Society by scientists from Rhode Island University showing that there was no difference between the way sugar and HFCS was metabolized in women. Morevoer, as Melanie Warner reported in the New York Times,

“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.’”

Other experts cited in the New York Times were even more dismissive of the link,

“‘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.’”

To be fair, Kaledin did balance out this item by citing a scientist she was directed to by the makers of HFCS, Dr, Arthur Frank, a weight management specialist at George Washington University. The problem is that viewers tend to be suspicious of anyone recommended by an industry under attack, and even though Dr. Frank noted that HFCS is “is a nutritional, biochemical and caloric equivalent of table sugar,” he wasn’t quoted speaking directly to claim that HFCS metabolizes in a way that is more detrimental to weight control than sugar.

The baseline for discussing weight and diet is this: “calories in” need to equal “calories out.” Sorry, that’s not being mean, that’s just the way biology is. You could take your 64-ounce gulp bucket and fill it with mashed potatoes, or cheese or ground beef or pasta or foie gras and the outcome, if consumed every day, would be the same: unless you happened to be a daily triathlon taker, you would gain weight – indeed, you’d almost certainly be a lot worse off than if you were simply consuming 64-ounces of HFCS-sweetened soft drink.

The media’s coverage of high fructose corn syrup is a distraction from a simple, fundamental yet unpalatable message: you have to control how much you eat. Of course, it’s far more tempting to blame a faceless chemical than force people to face up to their personal responsibilities to eat a balanced diet, avoid gluttony and take exercise.