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Blaming it on corn syrup

Its increased use as a cheap sweetener is seen by some as responsible for soaring obesity.

March 24, 2003|Patricia King | Special to The Times

Robyn Landis is a Seattle-based writer and educator who loves chocolate and has no intention of giving up cookies and cakes, at least in moderation. But when it comes to sodas and desserts sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, she believes in abstinence, not moderation.

"High-fructose corn syrup is a really low quality, really cheap sugar," the 38-year-old Landis says dismissively. The syrup starts out as cornstarch, which is then made sweeter by converting some of its glucose to fructose; the more fructose in the end product, the sweeter it is. "It is not something our bodies should be dealing with. It's completely unnatural."

She also objects to the fact that high-fructose corn syrup turns up in unlikely places, such as ketchup, baby food and baked beans. "Even chocolate tastes more like sugar than chocolate when it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup," says Landis, who favors products sweetened with organic, unrefined cane sugar.

Natural food advocates such as Landis aren't the only ones zeroing in on high-fructose corn syrup. With waistlines expanding, the fattest and richest country in the world continues to look for nutritional scapegoats. Now that a high-fat diet is no longer our sole dietary demon, all varieties of sugar have made a comeback as logical culprits, as has the fast-food industry.

Last year, the bestselling "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" linked the obesity epidemic to "supersized" portions of fast food, including sodas.

This year, the subsidized corn industry is under attack in "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World." Author Greg Critser points to high-fructose corn syrup as a villain because it enabled the food industry to increase portion sizes without sacrificing profits.

He also faults the sweetener for overloading the American diet with fructose. The "cornification" of the American diet, says Critser is "skewing the national metabolism toward fat storage."

Dr. George A. Bray, an obesity researcher and professor of medicine at Louisiana State University Medical Center, also singles out high-fructose corn syrup because the meteoric rise in its consumption closely parallels the jump in obesity rates. "Nothing else in the food supply does this. It's a very, very striking relationship."

In particular Bray cites the dramatic increase in soda sales, especially among young people, whose obesity rates have doubled in the last 30 years. According to a 2002 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adolescents' milk consumption decreased by 36% from 1965 to 1996. During that same period, soft-drink consumption increased 287% in boys and 224% in girls. Children and adolescents are drinking twice as much soda as milk, even as they're not getting enough calcium -- a mineral that may affect the body's ability to regulate weight, Bray says.

The case against high-fructose corn syrup has been fueled by concerns that Americans are ingesting too much fructose. Ironically, fructose, which is also known as fruit sugar, was once considered a healthier, "more natural" alternative to sucrose, that is, old-fashioned table sugar, because of its presence in fruit. In addition, diabetics thought it was healthier for them because it does not raise insulin or blood sugar levels as high as glucose does.

However, animal studies and preliminary human studies have found that a high-fructose diet leads to some of the same health problems that are rampant among overweight Americans, including insulin resistance and elevated triglyceride levels, a marker for heart disease.

Unlike glucose, fructose is almost entirely metabolized in the liver. When fructose reaches the liver, says Dr. William J. Whelan, a biochemist at the University of Miami School of Medicine, "the liver goes bananas and stops everything else to metabolize the fructose."

And the fructose propels the liver into a fat-promoting mode by activating the formation of enzymes that lead to elevated levels of "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides.

Even the fact that fructose does not raise insulin levels as high as glucose could be a problem for those with appetite-control problems, according to a 2002 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Eating fructose results not only in lower insulin levels but also lower leptin levels. Because both hormones are involved in appetite control, eating lots of fructose "could increase the likelihood of weight gain."

Such studies have prompted the American Diabetes Assn. to conclude that "large amounts of fructose may increase blood fat levels" and that "there is no reason to use large amounts of fructose" in place of sucrose.

But skeptics, including some of the scientists who did the studies, caution that the case against fructose is far from proved.

Rush to judgment?

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