Joe Windish notes an interesting rebuttal to a science story that appeared in the Times of London that asserted that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) had specific qualities leading to obesity, and concluded that normal fructose was also a big problem. In fact, Windish links to two rebuttals, the second of which deconstructs the claim that sugars differ much in any form when metabolizing in the human body. In the first case, the Times simply didn’t bother to do its homework:
Yikes. When you see the phrase “scientists have proved,” it’s nearly always an indication that the writer has no idea what he or she is talking about. And superlatives such as “for the first time” should nearly always be avoided.
One of the authors of the study, Kimber Stanhope of the University of California at Davis, weighed in on the Grist message boards. [link] Referencing the Sunday Times, she wrote: “Almost every sentence in the article contained at least one inaccurate statement.” She runs through them one at a time.
Fructose and high-fructose corn syrup aren’t the same. It appears that the writer, Lois Rogers, conflated the two and jumped to all kinds of incorrect conclusions. For example, that the research had anything at all to do with “the obesity epidemic.” It didn’t.
They’re not the same; HFCS is a more concentrated form of the sugar, with much less cost — which makes it all the more ubiquitous. As Big Money notes in its own debunking, the problem of obesity isn’t really the structure of HFCS, but the subsidies that make it dirt cheap:
As I have noted several times, HFCS presents a big problem. But that problem has to do with economics, not (necessarily) biology: HFCS is cheap and efficient to produce and use as an ingredient in all kinds of products—including products that might not contain sugar at all if HFCS didn’t exist. It is cheap in large part because of farm subsidies. As a result, it is ubiquitous and is making a lot of people fat, diabetic, and prone to heart disease. But if sugar were just as ubiquitous, it might be just as blameworthy for many of our worst public health problems as HFCS has become. We just don’t know yet.
The problem here is that by myopically looking for proof that HFCS is some kind of poison, we’re taking attention away from the real problem—the product’s ubiquity, which is largely a result of massive federal subsidies to corn growers. That should be the main target, at least until scientists prove that HFCS is more than marginally worse for us than sugar is. And that might never happen.
In years past, endocrinologists and dietitians would differentiate between various kinds of sugars and starches for diabetics when attempting to control their blood sugars. Now, those efforts focus on the carbohydrate value of the foods instead. Sugars convert in the body into glucose regardless of their original form, whether that is HFCS, natural fructose, starches, or sugar alcohols, the latter of which have been used as sugar substitutes for years. The carb and caloric values differ between these various forms (with HFCS being a relatively high concentrate), but the management of all of them is the same. Namely, diabetics (like myself) have to seriously limit their intake of carbs in all of these forms.
The big problem in the American diet is how artificially inexpensive HFCS is, thanks to federal subsidies. This government intervention in the market made it possible for food producers to replace more expensive sugars with HFCS, and to boost the sugar content at the same time, while lowering the price of the products in which they use it. It created an HFCS bubble that has corn producers converting more of its product from normal food to syrup than the market would have supported, while providing an incentive to manufacturers to load their products with much higher caloric values than they may have done if buying more expensive sugar from other sources. And thanks to the artificially low prices — which all of us make up in taxes eventually — people buy and consume more of it.
It’s yet another story of government intervention creating artificial bubbles and causing unforeseen and unnecessary damage. In this case, the artificial bubble is around too many of our waists. We don’t need more regulation and intervention to address the obesity problem; we can start by eliminating the subsidies that make obesity too easy to accomplish.