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Sugar Wars: Industry front group defends high fructose corn syrup

Consumer Reports News: November 06, 2009 12:20 PM

Big Corn is fighting it out with the Big Apple in ad wars. Last year, the Corn Refiners Association launched a series of ads defending the processed sweetener against its attackers. This year, The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched ads asking subway riders if they were " pouring on the pounds." The posters depict a bottle of soda, sports drink, or sweetened ice tea morphing into blobs of fat as it’s poured into a glass. Now, the deceptively named Center for Consumer Freedom is getting in on the food fight.

The group—which according to SourceWatch was founded with tobacco industry funding and has been financed in the past by sweetened-beverage companies, including Coca-Cola, among other major food industry players—launched it’s own poster in New York asking " Big Apple or Big Brother?" Now the group has launched a million dollar ad campaign defending high fructose corn syrup.

The SweetScam campaign includes this ad, which depicts a sugar cube, a honey bear, and an ear of corn in a police line-up for causing weight gain. The "victim" isn’t sure which culprit is to blame, but thinks it might be the corn because he’s "seen that high fructose corn syrup guy on the news." The police officer informs him they all have the same calories, and are "processed by the body the same way too." He releases the sticky suspects after determining that the victim is "making this stuff up without any proof."

The point is summed up as "a sugar is a sugar." To a certain extent that’s true—and most Americans would do well to consume less of all of them. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American should consume no more than about 40 grams (approximately 10 teaspoons) of added sugars a day–added sugars don’t include those that occur naturally in fruit and other foods. But the average American consumes more than twice that amount about 22 teaspoons per day, and adolescent boys between 14 and 18 consume more than three times more, about 34 teaspoons per day.

I’m still not sure what crime high fructose corn syrup was charged with in the ad. If the infraction is that the sweetener is chemically worse for you than table sugar, you’d have to let the corn guy go due to lack of evidence. The two sweeteners are almost identical chemically, both about half fructose and half glucose. While high-fructose corn syrup has been implicated in a rise in type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other health problems, there's no clear evidence that it increases their risk more than regular sugar does. Instead, the association may simply reflect the fact that we consume so much of it.

And that’s where high fructose corn syrup’s guilt lies—it’s everywhere. Manufacturers began substituting high-fructose corn syrup for white sugar in the 1970s, mainly in beverages and processed sweets. Because it costs less and helps extend a product's shelf life its use has soared. It is the primary sweetener of food industry choice in most soft drinks and a common one in other foods, including breakfast cereals, salad dressings, cheese spreads, yogurts, jams, peanut butter, and bread. Chances are—if the victim in the ad gained weight from eating too much food, rather than not getting enough exercise, high fructose corn syrup and sugar could both be culprits—but because it’s in more foods, high fructose corn syrup may very likely deserve a greater share of the blame.

Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

Read more on the whole truth about high-fructose corn syrup, and see our report on cereals for kids and our cereal Ratings (subscribers only).

Photo courtesy of kaibara87

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