Sunday, July 02, 2006

New York Times: High-fructose corn syrup gets "a bad rap"

Above all, do not read the headline of this New York Times article about high-fructose corn syrup. Do not read the sub-headings. Do not read the opening anecdote or the closing foolishness.

These book-ends reflect the worst of "flavor-of-the-day" health and science journalism. In this brand of journalism, what you thought was unhealthy yesterday is always healthy today. And, for excitement and novelty, it will always be unhealthy again tomorrow.

The spin of the headline and opening grabber paragraphs ruins an otherwise competent article.

In the sensible body of the article, you will find that leading experts such as Barry Popkin and Walter Willett are very concerned about rapid increases in consumption of soda and other sweetened beverages in recent decades. These beverages rank with the switch from home cooking to fast-food diets and the adoption of sedentary lifestyles as leading causes of the obesity epidemic.

Much of the sugar in these beverages, and scattered throughout the rest of the food supply in places you would never expect, comes from high-fructose corn syrup.

In the sensible body of the article, you will find that this corn syrup should never be considered "natural." It comes from an industrial chemical process that cannot be reproduced in your kitchen.

But, the book-ends. Arrghh!

The headline is, "A sweetener with a bad rap."

The "spin" of the article is that high-fructose corn syrup may be no worse than cane sugar in promoting obesity. That may be true, but it is like saying "cop-killer" bullets have gotten a bad rap, because it turns out that officers have been dying from regular bullets for generations, so everything you have heard about ammunition sales is wrong.

High-fructose corn syrup contributes to obesity, and obesity is a serious health concern. If a different sweetener were mass-produced for the same products, then a different sweetener would be the problem. As it stands, without a doubt, the problem is high-fructose corn syrup.

In the opening paragraph, a perfectly reasonable shopper named Marie Cabrera checks food labels in the grocery store to find the hidden high-fructose corn syrup. The article wrongly implies that she is confused. In the closing paragraph, Cabrera changes her mind:
But now, after learning that many experts say the substance is handled no differently in the body than sugar, she says that she will probably let some products with high-fructose corn syrup slide. "I guess I don't need to be so hard-core about it," she said.
It sounds like the reporter is telling everybody who will listen that experts consider high-fructose corn syrup to be harmless. It's not true, but Cabrera believed her. That's just tragic.


Anonymous said...

Your post offers no evidence against the NYT article. All you offer is hyperbole. Your post is worthless.

extramsg said...

I think you make a logical mistake here. You say:

"If a different sweetener were mass-produced for the same products, then a different sweetener would be the problem. As it stands, without a doubt, the problem is high-fructose corn syrup."

The point of the article is that it's not so much that HFCS is the problem, it's our lack of exercise and love of junk food. Does it matter that it's HFCS makes a candy bar 200 calories or cane sugar makes the candy bar 200 calories? No. The problem is that this 3 oz item is 200 calories and people are eating them day after day after day while they sit in front of a computer screen and then go home and sit in front of a TV.

The cop killer bullets analogy makes no sense at all because it implies a higher level of lethality.

The fact that people look on a product for HFCS and will choose a candy bar with cane sugar instead is just stupid. They should be looking at the calories and choosing something other than a candy bar.

Parke Wilde said...

Much thanks for the comments.

Just for reflection, does the shopper in the book-end paragraphs of the article make the logical mistake that you describe as "stupid"? Does the post make this logical mistake?

Mark said...

I really felt that the NYT piece was a breath of fresh air. I didn't at all read it as saying that HFCS is good for you. It was clearly saying that it is equal to sugar. Everyone knows that you should lay off the sugar.

Same with trans fat. It's equal to saturated fat. Which is bad for you. It's no worse. The evidence that people put forth who think it is, is *exactly* the sort of evidence that started the HFCS bandwagon: preliminary results that even the original researchers don't really support anymore.

These are just two examples of the junk pseudoscience that happens. Companies are substituting sat fat for trans fat now. What's next? Substituting another sugar for HFCS? That will not change anything.

As for it being "unnatural," I'm not sure that has any meaning for me. Is unnatural bad for me? How, exactly? A perusal of Harold McGee's popular food science and history book "On Food and Cooking" will change your perspective about natural foods. Cheese, yogurt, cashews, vanilla, etc., etc., are all highly processed, unnatural foods -- it's just that they were "industrialized" centuries ago, so we've accepted them.

Anonymous said...

Actually, trans fat is much worse for your health than saturated fat. There is plenty of research to support that. Furthermore stearic, lauric, palmitic fatty acids can have different effects, as can their pattern of esterifications! In short(ening!) fats are a complicated subject that all sides of the fat debate have tried to oversimplify.

A blog with such visibility (it comes up easily in google) is bound to attract shills for the US agrobiz. It will be interesting to see what else is posted here.

Although trans fats and HFCS are both irresistible to producers because of their cheapness, I think the case for HFCS increasing the harmfulness of the product is weaker. The constituents of HFCS are naturally occuring after all, unlike transfats. I completely avoid transfats and am absolutely convinced it has improved my health. (peanuts too, which are really a mixed health bag for many reasons, even though they are heavily promoted as healthy) I tend not to ingest products that have HFCS because I avoid sugary things like soft drinks but if I were really hungry and wanted a quick fix I wouldn't loose any sleep over downing a Sprite.

Anonymous said...

In all of this banter about 'picking your poison', has anyone ever stopped to consider that there may be a healthy alternative to both HFCS and cane sugar. What happened to Honey?
Let's stop talking about HFCS getting a 'bad rap' and start thinking about honey getting a raw deal.
It is scientifically proven that honey is not only a completely natural sweetener, but that it contains alot more than simple sugars. Honey can actually help you lose weight and sometimes it can actually lower blood sugar in some cases of diabetics eating honey before they sleep.

Let's step back a couple of hundred years, before juvenile diabetes was a household term, and think about what our grandparents and their parents used for a sweetener.

Anonymous said...

HFCS isn't bad for you: Pseudoscience is!