Industry’s high fructose corn syrup campaign leaves a sour taste

By Debra Eschmeyer

Earlier last week the Corn Refiners Association launched a multimillion-dollar media campaign to defend high fructose corn syrup as a “quality” sweetener, in the face of mounting public perception that this cheap, ubiquitous compound has played a not-so-sweet role in making Americans chunky and sick. (See Marc’s May post on the connection between HFCS price and consumption patterns.) Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the number of Americans with diabetes increased to 24 million in 2007. But that’s just the tip of that deadly sundae: another 57 million Americans have pre-diabetes, a condition that vastly increases the risk of developing diabetes in the future.

Diabetes results when the body cannot use blood sugar as energy, either because it has too little insulin or because it cannot use insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% to 95% of cases, typically develops later in life and is associated with obesity and lack of exercise. Type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in children, occurs when the immune system mistakenly destroys cells that make the insulin. An estimated 1 in 3 children born in 2000 will be diabetic in their lifetime; the risk factor increases to 1 in 2 for Hispanics and African Americans.

I find the Corn Refiners Association’s chutzpah unbelievable. Our already failing health care system is ill-prepared for the absolute crush and cost of the coming wave of diabetics, yet industry is spending millions of dollars to persuade us to partake of even more empty calories. With 30% of the U.S. population considered obese, as recently highlighted by the Washington Post and Time Magazine, the last thing our country needs is more sugar of any kind.

I am not a scientist, so I am not going to try to explain the molecular composition of this industrially derived corn byproduct, but I have witnessed firsthand what a lot of high fructose corn syrup will do to a diabetic. Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Taking a swig of a Coke (one serving is sweetened with 27 grams of high fructose corn syrup, as almost all sodas are) is like when that roller coaster starts to gain momentum; as you drink the last drop, your hands are up in the air and you’re riding high. But then just moments later, you dip and your stomach is in your throat and suddenly your body is at a standstill — or worse, crashed. That is what HFCS (and many other sugars) do to your blood sugar: an intense pick-me-up, then a dramatic fall as your metabolism tries to manage the glycemic overload.

When my husband was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 25, we ate our meals like our life depended on it. In his case, it did — and still does. It was a dramatic change for a 190-pound, 6′ 4″ former college athlete. For months I cataloged every morsel that he ate in excruciating detail, noting the grams of carbohydrates so we could calculate what his failing pancreas could handle, i.e. two slices of whole wheat bread (22g) + garden veggie burger (5) + avocado (2) + 1/2 cup steamed green beans (5g) + side salad (8) + handful of grapes (15g) + milk (6.5) = 63.5 grams. According to our Diabetes Educator, the average person needs 136 grams of carbs a day for his brain to function. Amazingly enough, the Corn Refiners Association seems to think it is not enough that the average person ingests 270 calories [read: HFCS carbs] per day from soft drinks alone, according to nutritionist Marion Nestle.

For a young married couple that loves eating, turning the best part of the day into rations and ratios accompanied by nit-picky nagging, “You shouldn’t eat that much bread” or “Don’t you dare pick up that cookie!” was not enjoyable, to say the least. But every time he raised a sugar-laced sweet to his mouth, all I saw was an amputated foot … or a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness. Food became a necessary evil at that point.

Diabetes is a silent disease; it doesn’t strike quick and fast like some cancers, but its reach is far, its grip tight, and its blow deadly. Thanks to advances in modern medicine — insulin — diabetes has transformed from an acute disease (with a death sentence typically within a year) into a disease that slowly destroys a body with debilitating side affects; my husband would describe the result as bittersweet.

“It is a disease that does have the ability to eat you alive. It can be just awful — it’s almost unimaginable how bad it can be,” said Dr. John B. Buse, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine and is the Diabetes Association’s president for medicine and science, in a recent New York Times article titled “Diabetes: Underrated, Insidious and Deadly.”

Our bodies and society need us to stop eating sweeteners like HFCS, which are empty of any nutrition except calories. Efforts like those by the Corn Refiners Association do nothing but harm at-risk populations — the millions of existing diabetics and pre-diabetics in our country — and everyone else who must help shoulder the burden through rising health care costs.

But the good news is that we can help eradicate Type II diabetes and help keep blood sugar levels on an even keel for Type I diabetics, possibly eliminating the awful long-term effects of both types. All we need to do is encourage people to eat real food. And that means no highly processed food and no HFCS, just good, fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed beef, pastured poultry…all the foods that our great grandparents would list in their cookbooks. Ones that actually have flavor!

So even if the Corn Refiners Association has $30 million to throw at us to confuse and contort what we should be eating, the good-food movement is strong and growing ever stronger through community gardens, farm to school programs, farmers markets, healthy corner stores, and the beginning farmers movement. To please our taste buds and our pancreases, my husband and I continue to enjoy eating the HFCS-free fruits and vegetables that we grow on our beginning organic farm. I hope millions of eaters will prove to the sugar daddies that we are smarter than their almighty marketing dollars.

Further reading

Some excellent books that mention the role of high fructose corn syrup in our diet debacle:

Debra Eschmeyer is the marketing & media manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice; she also works a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she raises organic heirloom fruits, vegetables, and chickens. Formerly she was the project director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC, where she focused on U.S. agricultural policy and food sovereignty initiatives among grassroots domestic and international rural advocacy and other social justice networks.

18 Responsesto “Industry’s high fructose corn syrup campaign leaves a sour taste”

  1. I’m curious, Debra, what do you think about the food product manufacturers that are removing HFCS from their recipes and simply replacing it with white table sugar again? It seems to me that the focus on HFCS alone is an effort that will further confuse people into thinking that they’re eating healthy when they are not. Case in point: Nantucket Nectars, which advertises itself as “HFCS FREE” has as much sugar or more than most sodas I have encountered. Most of the sugar in this drink comes from either table sugar, or a mixture of apple and grape juices – bizarrely, the apple/grape combo is the most sugary.
    People need to eat fewer simple sugars by themselves, and I think checking the nutrition facts on a food product to see the sugar content is far more useful than seeing whether the sugar came from corn, beets, sugar cane, honey, agave, apples, or grapes, etc.
    I am a scientist, and I can explain to you the composition of HFCS. It is typically composed of 55% fructose (fruit sugar) and 45% glucose (everyone’s basic standard simple sugar). Sucrose, which is table sugar, is a disaccharide (two sugars bonded together) of fructose and sucrose. When you eat Sucrose, and it goes down into your gut, an enzyme called Sucrase breaks it apart into fructose and sucrose, and this process happens very rapidly in our stomachs, particularly when you are eating or drinking acidic foods. (like fruit juice) The result is that table sugar turns into almost the exact same mixture of glucose and fructose as HFCS, with only a small difference in the relative proportions of both of them. You’ll get your sugar spike, subsequent crash, and it you don’t use those calories you’ll put on weight.
    (HFCS and Honey have almost identical glucose/fructose ratios)
    Several studies have tried to find a link between HFCS and diabetes and obesity per se, but they haven’t found such a link. One of the original scientists who proposed that HFCS itself might be a causal factor in obesity, Barry Popkin, has since backed off his stance and does not think we should treat HFCS as different from other sources of sugar. I’m going to quote the wikipedia page on HFCS here because it contains a couple important quotes:
    One much-publicized 2004 study found an association between obesity and high HFCS consumption, especially from soft drinks.[34] However, this study did not provide any evidence that this association is causal. In fact, one of the study coauthors, Dr. Barry M. Popkin, is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I don’t think there should be a perception that high-fructose corn syrup has caused obesity until we know more.”[35] In the same article, Walter Willets, chair of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health, is quoted as saying, “There’s no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity …. If there was no high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t think we would see a change in anything important.” Thus he personally seems to believe that high-fructose corn syrup is no worse than other sugars. Willets also recommends drinking water over soft drinks containing sugars or high-fructose corn syrup.[36]
    High Fructose Corn Syrup is sugar, and is empty calories. Insofar as excess sugar can contribute to obesity and diabetes, people should be consuming less of it. But the focus on HFCS in particular is just going to drive consumers to seek out “HFCS Free” products that will simply have switched back to good ol’ white sugar, and they will think that they’re being healthier when they’re not.
    HFCS: The New White Sugar.

  2. Debra Eschmeyer says:

    Hi Karl,
    I agree with most of your points (and appreciate the science tidbits). My point is not that HFCS is worse than sugar, it is that we don’t need $30 million dollars of advertising trying to convince us that HFSC is good for us to consume.  We have hundreds of non-profits working on fumes while the Corn Refiners Assoc. pours this money down our collective throats. The battle is not between sugars; it is between truth in consumption and what lobbyists and corporations convince our government to allow our children to consume.

  3. Flaime says:

    But doesn’t HFCS present differently to the digestive system than table sugar? I remember reading that Michael Rozen has presented evidence that HFCS doesn’t trigger the bodies mechanisms that indicate that it has consumed calories and is “full,” hence we continue consuming when if we had eaten other carbohydrates, we probably would have stopped…

  4. The wikipedia page has a lot of info, and points to papers that compared two kinds of HFCS, and Sucrose, and found similar effects with regard to satiety. It would be difficult to imagine is being otherwise, because HFCS and Sucrose both get absorbed as glucose and fructose.
    I can understand why (besides not wanting to lose money) the corn refiners would want to ‘defend’ HFCS, because it seems that HFCS is being targeted in particular because it is so ubiquitous, and not because there’s much evidence that it is any worse than other sources of sugar for sweetening. My concern is that the all-anti-HFCS campaign will push producers and consumers to just switch back to table sugar and think they’ve solved the problem.
    Kind of like the lowfat campaigns, pushing people onto carbohydrates and not reducing overall caloric intake.

  5. Whoops I hit copy but didn’t hit paste, here’s the wikipedia link:

  6. The HFCS issue is about more than empty calories & sugar. HFCS is a GMO food that may have serious health concerns other than Type II diabetes
    Jeffrey M.Smith’s YouTube lecture may be of interest to some people

  7. granny miller,
    There are no detectable differences in the composition of corn syrup made from conventional corn versus genetically engineered corn. From a 2005 paper:
    Corn flakes, puffs, oils and syrup did not yield soluble proteins or did it at a very low level, which was not enough to detect the CryIA(b) protein.
    Finally, it was not possible to determine if foodstuffs like maize oil and maize syrup were derived from transgenic grains, due to these(sic) fact neither DNA nor proteins were detected in the samples.
    Jeffrey Smith is not well informed and frequently misrepresents what we know about genetic engineering.
    Since you mentioned the genetics of sugar sources, it might interest you to know that sugar cane is an allo-auto-polyploid. What this means is that sugar cane is derived from one species of grass that had all of its DNA doubled, and then added to a completely different species of grass. The result is a humonguous grass that produces large amounts of sugar in its tissues, which we collect and refine into white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, evaporated cane juice, sugar in the raw, and more. Polyploidy is a primitive form of genetic engineering that involves mixing entire species, rather than moving one or two genes between them. Just trying to give a little perspective on the issue you brought up. Not many people are aware that a great many of the foods we eat were derived from more than one species mixed together. Even sheep and chickens!

  8. YIKES – that URL did not come out well, although it still works. Sorry about that.

  9. Ali says:

    Inoculated – I’m with you on the sucrose/fructose ratios in HFCS vs. table sugar. Marion Nestle, whom Debra notes above, would also agree (not sure about the other). To my mind, that’s not the issue. Because HFCS is artificially cheap (tariffs, subsidies), it allows manufacturers to “add value” to their products. Not by dropping prices, which would impact earnings statements and make shareholders blow steam out their ears, but by making products bigger. And bigger. And bigger still. Which is why an “average” size soda has nearly doubled. So in that way, HFCS should take plenty of blame for the obesity crisis.
    Also, HFCS is never in real food (as defined by Debra, above, and…well…me). It’s always, always in crap. I’ve said this elsewhere, but HFCS should be seen as a giant red flag that says “Don’t eat me! I’m heavily processed! I’m so totally NOT real food! Stay awaaaaaay.”
    Does HFCS have the same sucrose/fructose ratio as honey? Yep. Would I choose honey-sweetened homemade lemonade every time over a similar size of Country Time? Yep again.
    Debra, thanks for sharing that information about your husband. That was lovely and thoughtful, and very poignant.

  10. Debs says:

    I think this new HFCS campaign is insidious.  It’s hard enough for people to start questioning whether the crap they’re being fed is good for them.  Once they figure it out, they get bombarded with an ad campaign about how maybe it’s not so bad after all.  Argh!

    The creepy thing for me is that I predicted this, but I thought I was kidding.  I wrote about it here:

  11. The Corn Refiners Association launched a multi-media advertising and public relations campaign to change the conversation about high fructose corn syrup, which has been the subject of considerable attention and misinformation.
    Most of the problem stems from the confusion about what high fructose corn syrup really is. Two-thirds of consumers are aware of high fructose corn syrup, but most do not understand the similarities and differences between high fructose corn syrup and table sugar.
    Scientific research continues to confirm that high fructose corn syrup is no different from other sweeteners. It is essentially the same as table sugar and honey, and has the same number of calories.

    Consumers can see the latest research and learn more about high fructose corn syrup at and
    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

  12. The problem with HFCS is NOT that it is or is not similar to sugar in my opinion. It’s that it’s in everything people eat – and it’s frequently in foods with no nutritional value whatsoever. The same could be said about refined sugar but since it costs more than HFCS, it seems to be a bit less ubiquitous in our food.

    Another problem about HFCS is the harm all of our corn growing does to the land. HFCS is not the only one at fault here – so are all of the animals fed on corn, and so is sugar. But we grow a lot more corn than sugarcane in this country.
    Audrae, I invite you to my blog, to continue this debate. I also invite you to this post I wrote on DailyKos so you can read the 500 or so comments made by Americans all over the country.

  13. This discussion is going pretty well. I’d like to agree with Ali on the honey-sweetened lemonade. Besides the fact that fresh lemonade is delicious, honey really adds interest to the drink, but it also depends on the honey you use – too spicy of a floral source and the lemonade gets a bite that detracts from the lemonade itself. But a little goes a long way and the apparent sweetness is more than the mere sugar you add. (Plus – Country time is 0% juice)
    And I’ve got to disagree with the president of the Corn Refiner’s Association on one specific point. Corn syrup, as I said above, has about the same ratio of glucose and fructose as honey, give or take all the different flowers that honey comes from. But that does not mean that HFCS is “essentially the same as table sugar and honey.” Honey contains minerals, a few minute proteins, and more importantly, volatile compounds that give it its floral flavor. If you said that honey is essentially the same as honey with regard to its sugar content, then I would agree. I’m surprised that a $30 million campaign would put a questionably accurate claim on the front page of its website:
    HFCS is safe and no different from other common sweeteners like table sugar and honey.”
    It is different.

  14. Hank Herrera says:

    The manufacturers of edible substitute substances argue vigorously to protect their investments in chemical processes that disaggregate then reformulate molecules into substances that look and taste like real food.  These manufactured edible substitute substances (MESSes) entered the food stream in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s.  Their presence in the food stream has increased dramaticlaly since then.

    The introduction of MESSes into the food stream coincides with the rapid increase in diseases like Type II diabetes and obesity.  Someday really smart epidemiologists with large data sets will look at this coincidence to determine the strength of the correlation in statistical terms.  Just like epidemiology led to the discovery of a causal relationship between smoking and cancer (and cardiovascular disease), my bet is that that epidemiology will find a causal relationship between MESSes and Type II diabetes, obesity etc.

    Deb wrote so movingly about the choices that she and her husband make to eat real food.  I wish them both well.

    Hank Herrera

  15. Jacque Haiduk says:

    My husband and I were appauled when we say the corn refiners association commercial.  I got on the internet specifically to find somewhere to leave a comment, unfortunately they don’t have a place for that on their website.  The facts about HFC that are given are completely misleading on their website and pointed at people that may be easily swayed by somebody that has a vested interest in PROFIT!  My nephew has had ADD for years and stayed with us several months last school year.  We limited his intake of HFC to an occasional coke for when he snuck one in and fed him an organic diet and the school had no behavioral problems during that period and he did his class work with no problems.  This misleading legislation and advertising is a detriment to our children’s future.  HFC is highly addictive too!  Have you ever seen the difference between the amount of ketchup or bar-b-q sauce that is consumed by a person using one containing HFC and one that is not, the test is that simple. 

  16. Debra Eschmeyer says:

    Last night I had the delight of coming across this advertisement for High Fructose Corn Syrup by the Corn Refiners Association:  Ironically, there is a Google ad right next to it for Blood Sugar Control.


  17. Lamar says:

    Own western society had taken it upon itself to live a livestyle that is glutenous where inner discipline is thrown out the window and we must appease our every whim and desire. With this is the intake of sugary foods and quick meals laden with processed crap. Sugar and HFCS will kill you slowly by acidifying your body making a haven for all of the illnesses you don’t want.  HFCS all natural? My butt. How many multiple-step enzyme reactions it takes to make HFCS? Their is no way HFCS would exist in nature. If you want something sweet, the answer is simple. Stevia extract. 100% all natural.  As for missing bulk in foods like cakes and cookies just replace sugar with strained unsweetened apple sauce. 1 cup sugar – 1 cup strained apple sauce. Easy as that. Enjoy a healthier lifestyle without sugar or HFCS.

  18. DeWayne Knight says:

    The Corn Refiners Association is one of the biggest mouthpieces of the Republican Party.  Without the lobbyist dollars to substain the likes of Cargill Foods and Archer Daniels Midland, HFCS would not even be in grocery stores as the hideous sugar replacement that has made millions of us morbidly obese.  There would not even be a single TV spot airing to defend the product.