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The Corn Syrup Debate—A Sticky Subject

Some experts have raised a red flag about a common ingredient in everyday foods—high fructose corn syrup—saying it may be a culprit in the nation's obesity epidemic.

High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener that is made by processing cornstarch with acids or enzymes. It has only been around for a few decades, but its use has steadily sky rocketed. Today, high fructose corn syrup sweetens a huge variety of foods, from packaged baked goods and yogurt to ketchup and soft drinks.

Corn Syrup and Obesity—Is there a link?

In the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic rise in obesity in America. Today nearly one third of adult Americans are obese and another third are overweight. The number of obese children has doubled to one in five. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and chronic illnesses like Type II diabetes and arthritis.

The concerns about high fructose corn syrup are two-pronged. First, Americans may be packing on the pounds simply by consuming too much.

In his book, "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), Greg Critser argues one of the single most important changes to the nation's food supply was when the two biggest soft drink makers switched from a fifty-fifty blend of sugar and corn syrup to 100 percent high fructose corn syrup in the1980's.

"The move saved both companies 20 percent in sweetener costs, allowing them to boost portion sizes and still make substantial profits," he wrote. The same went for food makers.

Sweet & Cheap

What helps make corn so cheap and plentiful are government subsidies to the tune of billions of dollars each year. There is a growing chorus that says overabundance is part of the problem and Uncle Sam needs to consider how agricultural policy can improve public health.

A recent study published in the journal Obesity Research found Americans consumed 83 more calories each day from added sweeteners in 1996 than they did in 1977. Most of the extra calories came from beverages.

"We are increasingly consuming foods that provide energy, but few other nutrients," concluded study authors Barry Popkin and Samara Joy Nielsen of the Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The government is considering changing the nutrition facts label to make things clearer for people who are trying to manage their weight.

But it's not only how much Americans are consuming that raises alarms, but also what they're consuming. Some food scientists have zeroed in on fructose, which makes up just over half of the corn sweetener, saying the way it metabolizes in the body may lead to weight gain.

Not so Sweet

A 2002 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that fructose depressed the production of two hormones, insulin and leptin, which help regulate the appetite. For people consuming diets high in fructose, this could "increase the likelihood of weight gain." The scientists stated that a considerable amount of research still needs to be done to completely appreciate the effect of fructose in the American diet.

Another concern is that fructose prompts the liver to build triglycerides. Higher-than-normal levels of this fat put you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found that men who ate a high fructose diet over a period of six weeks elevated their triglyceride levels by 32 percent. There was no significant effect shown on women in the study who had the same diet.

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) says there is no connection between high fructose corn syrup and obesity and recently launched a website to get its word out.

The group says it is scientifically inaccurate to apply results of studies on pure fructose to high fructose corn syrup since the corn sweetener is only about half fructose (and about half glucose).

"Obesity is caused by too many calories and not enough physical activity—not fructose, sucrose, soft drinks or any single food," the association says.

No matter who wins the argument over corn syrup, one thing is certain: It's wise to cut down on the amount of refined sugar and processed foods we eat and include more fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains in our diet.

 

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