A sweetened load of bull


I’m sure you’ve heard the news that, in the States, corn producers have recently petitioned the Food and Drug Administration for the right to rebrand High Fructose Corn Syrup to the simpler “corn sugar” after HFCS’ use dipped almost 20% in recent years. The name “high fructose corn syrup” has been judged in the public eye as being responsible for the epidemic of obesity that America’s plenty has wrought over the past forty years, regardless of the science behind the situation, so the corn industry did what anyone without scruples would in the circumstances — when judged as being in the wrong, rather than changing your ways, simply rename yourself so all the old associations slide off your back. Blackwater did it by renaming themselves Xe, and Jamie Darkstar used to be called Jamie Funk — neither entities changed their ways, merely their branding. It’s what people do when they see public opinion trending against them. Understandable in a way, but a bit galling to those of us with an eye on the memory hole.

Here in Canada, it’s listed on labels as “glucose/fructose”. In the UK, it’s alternately known as “isoglucose”, “maize syrup”, or “glucose-fructose syrup”. The substance is the same though, and what effects it may have metabolically are, obviously, wholly divested from what you call it. Corn sugar by any other name would taste as sweet, and all that. HFCS-55 has roughly the same proportion of fructose to glucose as honey, though its chemical makeup is different. The important thing to note here is that HFCS has gotten enough of a bad name that people are actively looking for and avoiding it in products — since one is supposed to only eat such sugars in moderation, and HFCS is so bloody omnipresent, this is an unavoidable consequence. Heinz Ketchup has switched back to using cane sugar as a result of this public opinion dip, in fact. Some soft drink manufacturers are creating “throwback” labels for their drinks that use the original recipes, e.g. the Mexican and the Kosher Coke.

HFCS is made from milled corn processed by enzymes to draw out the sugars. It is cheaper by far than sugar in the States, due to a series of tariffs placed on imports for cane sugar in the 70’s, and due to the ongoing heavy subsidization of the entire corn farming industry. Ostensibly, this subsidy to aid the poor in obtaining healthy food. Obviously this is not entirely the case — not when so much of it is being used either for ethanol production or production of HFCS, rather than as corn or corn meal.

But the question remains, is this sudden distaste for the sweetener merited? The answer, of course, is a resounding… “maybe”. (What? This world is nuanced. Deal with it!)

There’s research showing that, for instance, at least in rodents, HFCS administered in the same quantity as table sugar and with the exact same caloric intake produced fatter rats across the board. Lipogenesis apparently happens easier in rodents than in mammals, though, so you can’t directly extrapolate this onto humans; and the study does not compare HFCS with honey which would be a better test of whether fructose is responsible, or whether the heavy processing involved in HFCS creation might have something to do with it. Mind you, I’m not one to try to make the “natural is better” argument — I wouldn’t by a long shot ever advocate that you should sweeten your drinks with an angry bear (it’s all-natural!). That said, it’s pretty certain that HFCS is less “healthy” than cane sugar in rats in equal amount, and since we don’t usually use honey as a sweetener nearly as much as table sugar, it’s an incomplete result, but a useful result in determining that there may be something to the anti-HFCS crowd’s claims.

But even those claims are overblown. Even if the prevalence of high-fructose sweetening in just about everything you stick in your gaping craw is directly responsible for an increase in lipogenesis in humans, it’s not “poison”. Small amounts of it are metabolically indistinguishable from sugar. But the research done on HFCS does show that increased consumption can have some deleterious effects.

And these effects are well enough known that the manufacturers of HFCS have taken it upon themselves to try to rebrand their product, in order to stem the bleeding. We can’t let them get away with shoving their skeletons down into a memory hole. That’s not playing fair. Either the science shows they’re on the right, or wrong, side of the truth.

On a sidebar, people who want to implement a “soda tax” to reduce obesity may be right about it, but they have the whole thing wrong, especially insofar as it will disproportionately impact the poor. The best place to impact this whole business and correctly rectify this situation is to eliminate the sugar tariffs, and eliminate the corn industry subsidies. Let sugar prices return to their natural levels by taking the thumb off the scales, and companies will prefer to use sugar that doesn’t necessarily cause obesity. You’d think the pro-big-business, anti-big-government Republicans would be all over that plan. Doubtful they’d throw in, given the spread of campaign contributions, though.

Comments

  1. Mitchell S says

    And this from the guy who recently said he didn’t care so much about the economics of science. :D Great post, heard about this but didn’t know about the sugar tariffs.

  2. says

    Only reason I get interested in economics, is where it involves science, misconceptions, politics and assholery. And this story had all of the above in spades.

    Glad you liked it!

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