Shopping last week in her local New York City grocery store, Elise Mackin, 32, filled her cart with items she knows to be good for her family whole grains, fruits and veggies and shied away from products that contained less wholesome ingredients. "Trans fats are out," she said, "and anything with high-fructose corn syrup."
The evils of trans fats are well known, but what's wrong with high-fructose corn syrup? "It's bad for you," said Mackin, an office manager, emphatically, "really unhealthy." But when a reporter pressed her for further explanation, she floundered. "It's well, I'm not sure, but I know it's not good," she finally said.
"You sound just like those commercials," laughed her husband Doug.
Those commercials are two spots that are at the center of an 18-month campaign, launched this month by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) in an effort to give high-fructose corn syrup public enemy no. 1 to many healthy-eating advocates an image makeover. In one ad, a mother pours a glass of bright red punch; in another, a woman offers her boyfriend a cherry-colored Popsicle. Both are confronted about the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup, but each has this ready response: High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn, has no artificial ingredients, has the same calories as sugar and is okay to eat in moderation.
That's certainly contrary to the popular public perception. In our postFast Food Nation world, high-fructose corn syrup is reviled for contributing to everything from the obesity epidemic to rising rates of childhood diabetes. So, which side is correct: Is it the devil's candy or a perfectly natural wonder?
The answer is somewhere in between, but high-fructose corn syrup is finding defenders from unusual corners. The American Medical Association recently announced at its annual policy-making meeting in Chicago that high-fructose corn syrup does not contribute more to obesity than sugar or other caloric sweeteners. Even Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has to agree. He criticized early versions of the CRA's ad campaign for its claims that high-fructose corn syrup is a "natural" product. "High-fructose corn syrup starts out as cornstarch, which is chemically or enzymatically degraded to glucose and some short polymers of glucose. Another enzyme is then used to convert varying fractions of glucose into fructose," says Jacobson. "High-fructose corn syrup just doesn't exist in nature." But he admits that the sweetener gets a bum rap. "The special harmfulness of high-fructose corn syrup has become one of those urban myths that sounds right, but is basically wrong. Nutritionally, high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose may be identical."
Even the scientists who first floated the idea of a link between high-fructose corn syrup and rising American obesity rates aren't so sure. Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, and Dr. George Bray of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge published a widely read and quoted paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 noting that the rise in high-fructose corn syrup consumption paralleled the rise in obesity rates in the U.S. and hypothesized that the way fructose is metabolized could be uniquely fattening. But the authors say they were just putting forth a theory. It was meant to inspire further study, not be a definitive declaration.
Nutritionist, author and food-policy doyenne Marion Nestle has blogged and written extensively about the issue and says in response to the commercials, "Lots of people think high-fructose corn syrup is the new trans fat. It isn't. ... Biochemically, it is about the same as table sugar (both have about the same amount of fructose and calories) but it is in everything and Americans eat a lot of it nearly 60 lbs. per capita in 2006, just a bit less than pounds of table sugar. High-fructose corn syrup is not a poison, but eating less of any kind of sugar is a good idea these days and anything that promotes eating more is not."
And therein lies the problem. The commercials claim that just like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup isn't unhealthy when consumed in moderation. But it's hard to know exactly how much of it we're actually consuming because it shows up in so many unexpected foods. "It was in my children's vitamins!" said Elise Mackin. Because high-fructose corn syrup extends the shelf life of foods, and farm subsidies make it cheaper than sugar, it's added to a staggering range of items, including fruity yogurts, cereals, crackers, ketchup and bread and in most foods marketed to children. So, unless you're making a concerted effort to avoid it, it's pretty difficult to consume high-fructose corn syrup in moderation. "We did a consumers survey," says Doug Radi of Boulder, Colo., based Rudi's Organic Breads, "and less than 25% of them realized that high-fructose corn syrup is commonly used in bread."
Rudi's launched its own advertising campaign over the summer, encouraging Colorado consumers to read ingredients and nutrition labels before purchasing staple foods like bread. The company's aim is to get people to choose Rudi's, since its breads are free of high-fructose corn syrup. "Bread is one of those food items that has a halo of health water, flour, yeast and salt. All natural," says Radi, "but today there are often 15 unpronounceable, unnecessary ingredients."
But where does that leave the average consumer? "I hate those commercials," says Doug Mackin, "but they do make you think. I'm still not convinced. And I prefer to eat all-natural products, but I'm a little less likely to freak out if my kid drinks fruit punch at a party."