Barry Popkin is one of the authors behind a landmark 2004 study on sweet stuff. The study looked at the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages and obesity, and turned out to be a pivotal moment in the now-heady demonization of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Thanks in part to Popkin's work, people around the world are waking up to the problems that HFCS can cause.
So how does Popkin view his work in the rearview mirror? “Now I feel really bad,” he says.
Come again? Why would someone who'd raised public awareness on such a key issue feel glum? It's a complicated tale filled with fructoses, glucoses, and neuroses.
Some background: HFCS is such a dirty term nowadays that even the corn industry wants to leave it behind. Desperate to fight public perception that the syrup causes obesity and all manner of ills, corn processors in 2008 tried to remarket the product as “corn sugar” and ran a series of hokey commercials insisting it’s just like regular sugar. The sugar industry pounced and last week slapped the corn industry with a lawsuit alleging false advertising.
High-fructose corn syrup didn’t use to be taboo. The sweetener came onto the market in the 1970s but garnered almost no mention in the press until the 1980s. The first headlines about HFCS mostly spelled doom for the sugar industry, which was rapidly losing market share to the cheaper corn-based sweetener. In 1984, Pepsi announced it would be using HFCS exclusively, and Coke promised usage up to 100 percent—a huge blow for sugar. Sugar consumption continued to fall as more and more companies swapped the syrup for the white stuff in products from ketchup to bread. Big sugar looked poised for failure.
Fast-forward 20 years and you have food giants like ConAgra and Sara Lee yanking high-fructose corn syrup from their products and replacing it with “natural” sugar. Hunt’s splashes the change on its labeling. Grocery stores, including local chain MOMs Organic Market, promise HFCS-free shelves. Politicians try to ban it in public schools. How did things go so wrong for high-fructose corn syrup?
The syrup’s bad PR run took off in the mid-2000s. A few reports had trickled in during the 1990s suggesting links between fructose and heart disease, but it wasn’t until the 2004 report suggesting a correlation between a rapid increase in HFCS use and the increase in obesity rates that things turned bitter for the syrup.
Newspapers featured countless headlines about the danger of high-fructose corn syrup. New studies demonstrated the ills of fructose. The public began demanding that HFCS be pulled from products, and some manufacturers obliged. The only problem, of course, is that rather than reduce the use of sweeteners in general, people wanted to replace the syrup with sugar. And science says HFCS and sugar are essentially the same.
“It’s identical,” says Popkin. "If you go to Whole Foods or Wild Oats, if you go back and look at organic products, you’ll see fruit juice. It’s sugar removed from fruit, just as we remove sugar from beets or from sugar cane or honey. It’s all sugar. It’s equally bad.”
Popkin says his study was meant as a wake-up call to scientists that HFCS needed to be studied. “We were only speculating that there might be an adverse effect,” he says, but “it kind of allowed people to take off on high-fructose corn syrup as an evil.” Blogs, websites, and journalists snapped up the research and pumped out headlines about the dangers of the corn-based product, always citing the study. “Other people wrote about it afterwards without even reading it carefully,” Popkin laments.
One problem is the tendency to conflate studies about fructose—of which there are many, and they all tell of dreadful effects on the body like fatty liver disease, dangerous fat, and kidney stones—with HFCS. Of course HFCS has fructose in it. So does sugar.
Kris Osterberg, a dietitian and instructor at Virginia Tech, explains that both sugar and HFCS are made up of glucose and fructose. The difference is that the molecules are bound in sugar and not in HFCS. But the effect on the body, Osterberg says, is the same.
“When you sit down and look at the charts of the last 25, 30 years, you see that the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has gone up. And obviously, so have our obesity rates,” she says. “There are a lot of things people want to blame for that.” Osterberg believes excess calories are behind the nation’s expanding waistlines. “Any excess sugars and fats, whether the calories come from sucrose (sugar) or high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t think it makes any difference. A calorie is a calorie.”
Don’t go feeling too bad for the poor, maligned corn processing industry. Despite its ugly reputation and pending lawsuit, HFCS still fills grocery shelves in products from crackers to cottage cheese, and the average person consumes 40+ pounds of it every year. It remains cheap due in part to government subsidies for corn. The “perversity” of the situation, as Popkin calls it, is that segments of the public believe HFCS is bad and other sugars are good when he thinks they are all terrible. (Indeed sugar got a recent comeuppance when the New York Times published a piece exploring sugar as “toxic.”)
“All sugar you eat is the same,” Popkin says. “That’s what we know now that we didn’t know in 2004.”