Has high fructose corn syrup gotten a bad rap?

A nutrition label on a can of soda with the ingredient high fructose corn syrup. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke/file)
A nutrition label on a can of soda with the ingredient high fructose corn syrup. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke/file)

High fructose corn syrup—the cheap alternative to table sugar—has been so demonized by nutritionists, public health officials, and some of my colleagues that the Corn Refiners Association lobbied hard to change the product’s name to the more innocuous-sounding “corn sugar.” The US Food and Drug Administration turned the group down two months ago, saying that consumers might be confused by the name change.

Well, here’s a new finding that might make things a little less confusing: Dr. James Rippe, an associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, conducted a 12-week weight loss trial involving 247 overweight adults in Orlando and found that it didn’t matter whether people were given reduced-calorie diets containing varying amounts of high fructose corn syrup or table sugar; they lost about the same amount of weight.

(The study was funded by the Corn Refiners Association.)

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Participants were randomly assigned to eat packaged foods with 10 percent of their total calories from high fructose corn syrup or sucrose (table sugar), or with 20 percent of their calories from these added sugars. After nearly three months, participants in all the groups lost an average of six to seven pounds.

The finding adds to previous ones showing that high fructose corn syrup doesn’t appear to have a demonic effect on our metabolism, causing us to sock away fat faster than, say, other forms of carbohydrates or the other macronutrients, fat and protein. Most of the studies, though, have been in overweight individuals, looking at moderate amounts of HCFS in the diet, so it’s still impossible to say for certain whether higher levels of corn syrup has any added negative effects beyond excess calories.

“When it comes to weight loss,” said Rippe, “it’s about calories, how many you take in and how many you burn.”

He said he remains “unpersuaded at this point” that particular dietary compositions, like a high-protein Atkins-style regimen, works any better than a more balanced diet at helping people shed extra pounds.

I think he’d disagree with Gary Taubes’ best-selling book Why We Get Fat, which argues that an excess of sugar and starches had led to our nation’s obesity problem.

“We’ve become bigger because the average person is eating 525 extra calories a day than they were a few decades ago,” Rippe said. “Of those extra calories, 47 calories a day come from added sugars.” It would be wrong, he added, to point our finger at one segment of the diet—like sugar soda—and say that eliminating it would fix our weight problem.

(Rippe vehemently objects to NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of supersize sodas in restaurants, but he’s also taken research funding from Coca-Cola.)

I pressed him on the wise advice (in my opinion) that doctors impart to overweight patients to cut back on high-sugar beverages that contain empty calories, pointing out that the tactic often works, at least a little, for weight loss. He countered that public health recommendations have gone too far in terms of urging people away from added sugars.

The American Heart Association, for example, recommends that men eat no more than 150 calories a day from added sugars—which include high fructose corn syrup and sucrose—and that women get no more than 100 calories a day. “That’s a very restrictive recommendation,” he said, “and 90 percent of Americans, including those following the reduced-calorie diet in our study, are eating more than that.”

While I think Rippe’s study was a well designed one—and makes the point that there’s probably no reason to distinguish between sugar from cane or corn—I do think that the latest public health push to get us to choose foods that are nutrient-dense is a good one. Most foods with a lot of added sugars aren’t all that nutritious and do add excess calories, so why shouldn’t we choose a glass of water or milk over a sports drink or cola? The fact is, we should.