- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SAN FRANCISCO.

The people of this city are known for their political naivete, nanny-state inclinations and docility in the face of confiscatory taxation, but they may have been pushed past the limit by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s latest proposal. He intends to tax retail chains for stocking Coke, Pepsi and other drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, because of an alleged “direct link between sweet beverages and obesity.”

A few food faddists have fixated on high-fructose corn syrup as primarily responsible for our nation’s obesity problems. Do away with high fructose corn syrup, the thinking goes, and our obesity problems will begin to melt away. This is, of course, complete nonsense, evoking H.L. Mencken’s, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” The mayor should have better sense than to base public policy on such spurious claims.

At the risk of confusing politicians with the facts, consider the following:

• In sweetness, high-fructose corn syrup is equal in intensity to disaccharide sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar. Both contain 4 calories per gram, are metabolized by the human body in the same way; and have the same effects in terms of the feeling of fullness we experience after eating.

• Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup also have essentially the same effect on the body’s production of insulin, which helps us burn calories and lowers blood sugar.

• Some have noted that for a time a rise in obesity paralleled an increase in the use of high-fructose corn syrup over the years. But while the consumption of high fructose corn syrup has risen since its introduction in the 1970s, its use actually peaked in 1999 and has since declined, whereas obesity rates have continued rising.

• Americans still consume less high-fructose corn syrup than sugar, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture: In 2006, the per capita sugar consumption was 44½ pounds, while consumption of high fructose corn syrup was 41½ pounds.

• Obesity rates are rising in many parts of the world where high-fructose corn syrup use is negligible or nonexistent. And Mexico, Australia and other countries report higher rates of obesity and diabetes, although there is little or no high-fructose corn syrup in their foods and beverages.

The assessments of nutritionists and health experts reflect such empirical evidence and commonsense observations. A panel led by Dr. Richard Forshee of the University of Maryland Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy concluded in August 2007 that available scientific data are “insufficient to implicate [high-fructose corn syrup] per se as a causal factor in the overweight and obesity problem in the United States.” Indeed, these same health researchers identified many other more “plausible explanations” for rising obesity rates in the U.S., including an increase in sedentary occupations and forms of entertainment, a decrease in physical education classes and sports programs in schools, changes in our transportation infrastructure that discourage physical activity, an increase in dual-income and single-parent households, and many other dietary and lifestyle choices.

The bottom line: Switching from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar as an ingredient would not change the number of calories in our diets and, therefore, would have no effect on our waistlines. Thus, telling consumers they should “avoid high-fructose corn syrup” is misleading; and regulating or taxing that commodity is worse still, an abuse of government power.

Far better, surely, to reject solutions that are neat, plausible and wrong, and instead to promulgate simple principles: Taking in more calories every day than your body burns leads to being overweight. There are no “forbidden” foods, as long as they are consumed in moderation. Eat a balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Exercise is essential.

Educational initiatives, applied relentlessly and cleverly, can reverse the trend of rising obesity, but misguided regulatory and tax policy cannot. Can’t our political leaders understand that sound health policy —toward obesity and other issues — begins with sound science and common sense? Fat chance.

Henry Miller is a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”

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