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Let's limit our intake of corn-syrup ads

A nationwide marketing campaign says high-fructose corn syrup has been unjustly blamed as a cause of obesity. True? Yes and no.

September 30, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

News flash: High-fructose corn syrup isn't to blame for the obesity epidemic.

"High-fructose corn syrup was acquitted today amidst a flood of public apologies by consumers who had singled the corn sweetener out as a unique cause of obesity," newspaper ads declared in what was intended to look like a news story showing a man dressed like an ear of corn being proved innocent.

The full-page ads, part of a $1-million marketing campaign launched Tuesday by a food-industry-backed advocacy group, ran in prominent newspapers nationwide, including this one. TV versions are running on all the cable news channels.

"Consumers have been duped," said J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom. "High-fructose corn syrup is a product that has been bizarrely maligned by what amounts to an urban myth."

True?

The answer: yes and no.

"Nutritionally, there's no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food-safety watchdog group.

"In terms of obesity, however, high-fructose corn syrup is still guilty," he said.

The reason for that is high-fructose corn syrup's ubiquity as a sweetener, especially in soft drinks. Americans' unquenchable thirst for soda is a primary reason for the obesity epidemic, experts say, and that's why consumers shouldn't be so quick to exonerate high-fructose corn syrup.

"Because of its widespread nature and relatively low cost to produce, it's a significant contributor to human obesity," said Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

That's not what the Center for Consumer Freedom would have you think.

"We recognize that both high-fructose corn syrup and sugar have calories, and eating calories will cause you to put on weight," Wilson said. "But the obesity epidemic is more complicated than singling out individual ingredients."

He said consumers are smart enough to understand that the issue isn't whether they should favor one sweetener over another. It's whether they can enjoy sweets in moderation.

"You've got to give people some credit," Wilson said. "They should be free to choose."

The American Medical Assn. issued a report last year concluding that there didn't seem to be any difference between high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. But it said more research was needed.

Nutrition experts say there may indeed be little if any difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar -- both seem to be equally bad for you if consumed in excessive amounts.

Many nutritionists say you should limit sweets (excluding milk and fruit) to 40 grams a day. That's about as much as you'd get from a single can of Coke.

But the experts say your body doesn't always know what's good for it.

Dr. Elizabeth Parks, an associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said research shows that liquid calories aren't processed the same way as "solid" calories.

The body, she said, has a tougher time understanding that it's just received a full tank of fuel when calories arrive in beverage form. "As a result, you don't have as good a sense of how much you have consumed."

In other words, there's a good chance you'll consume even more.

Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, declined to specify which companies or trade groups fund his organization's activities. He said only that the center is supported primarily by the food industry and restaurants.

I left a message with the American Beverage Assn. asking whether it helps fund the center. No one called back. I also received no response from Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo.

All things considered, you'd think the corn industry would have been an eager participant in the center's marketing blitz. But Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Assn., said her organization contributed no funds to the effort.

Still, she applauded the center's message to consumers.

"You would expect the food industry to defend such a widely used ingredient," Erickson said. "It benefits consumers not to be scared away from an ingredient that's been in the food supply for more than 30 years."

The sugar industry, meanwhile, found nothing sweet about high-fructose corn syrup's marketing tactics.

Andrew Briscoe, president of the Sugar Assn., a trade group, said it's "false and misleading" to suggest that the two sweeteners are nutritionally equal.

"Sugar exists naturally in almost every fruit and vegetable, but most abundantly in sugar cane and sugar beets," he said. "High-fructose corn syrup does not exist in nature. It is a highly processed product that requires the ingenuity and efforts of man for its creation."

Here's what I teach my kid: Sugar is bad for you. I don't differentiate between high-fructose corn syrup and what you get from sugar cane or beets. It's all sugar, and you want to avoid it as much as you can.

If soda is a leading culprit in making people fat, and if high-fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for the soda industry, then high-fructose corn syrup is guilty as charged in terms of culpability for obesity.

If the food industry wants to do the right thing, it should be telling people to go easy on the sweets. Period.

But that's a message you won't find anywhere in the Center for Consumer Freedom's ad campaign.

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David Lazarus' column runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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latimes.com/lazarus/obesity

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