- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

Move over greasy cheeseburgers and fries. Researchers now say the widespread use of the liquid corn sweetener, fructose, in soft drinks, baked goods and juice drinks might be a big factor in the swift rise in obesity in the United States.

“The increased use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the United States [since the mid-1980s] mirrors the rapid increase in obesity,” George A. Bray, an obesity scientist at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and other authors of the fructose study said in an article to be published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“There is a distinct likelihood that the increased consumption of HFCS in beverages may be linked to the increase in obesity,” the researchers say.

The study points out that HFCS is used to sweeten all nondietary U.S. soft drinks and most fruit drinks and that consumption of the corn-syrup sweetener rose more than 1000 percent from 1970 to 1990.

Researchers reviewed consumption records from the Agriculture Department from 1967 to 2000, then combined those data with previous research and their own analyses. As a result, they calculated that Americans 2 years old and older consume an average of 132 calories per day through HFCS.

Even worse, they conclude that the top 20 percent of consumers of caloric sweeteners in this country ingest an average of 318 calories per day from HFCS. For some, it’s as much as 700 calories per day, Barry M. Popkin, another author of the study, said in a interview.

“We’ve been [overdosing] on soft drinks and fruit drinks in this country,” said Mr. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He noted that the average American has increased daily caloric intake by more than 200 calories in the past 15 to 18 years, and he estimates that at least one-third to one-half of that excess has come from soft-drink and juice-drink consumption.

Meanwhile, obesity among Americans adults rose from 23 percent in the early 1990s to 30 percent today, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Other data show that two-thirds of Americans are overweight.

“We can’t show causally a direct linkage” between increased HFCS consumption and obesity, “but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it,” Mr. Popkin said.

Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association Inc., called the study “baseless,” saying the piece’s scientific facts make assumptions about high-fructose corn syrup’s role in obesity.

“No single food or sweetener causes obesity,” said Ms. Erickson with the Washington trade group for makers of corn starches, oils and sweeteners.

The food and beverage industries began switching their sweeteners from sucrose, or table sugar, to corn syrup in the 1970s, as they found the latter was cheaper to manufacture and it also was sweeter.

But unlike glucose, a major component of table sugar, scientists say fructose does not trigger responses in hormones that regulate appetite and energy use. Because of this, fructose is more likely to be converted into fat, the researchers say. They note that the “digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose.”

Mr. Popkin said both “clinical and animal studies show” that fructose consumption does not make someone feel full. “So you want to eat more and drink more,” he added.

In their report, the nutritionists say they think “an argument can now be made that the use of HFCS in beverages should be reduced and that HFCS should be replaced with alternative noncaloric sweeteners.”

The findings quickly were denounced by food and beverage groups that use HFCS in their products and by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading critic of fast foods.

“Suggesting that people are somehow fatter today because soft drinks and food and dairy products are sweetened with HFCS, instead of sucrose, or table sugar, is totally ridiculous. People are heavier today because they are taking in too many calories and not getting enough exercise,” said Richard Adamson, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the National Soft Drink Association.

Additionally, the increase in use of HFCS as a sweetener has not had a stronger impact on the amount of fructose in the U.S. diet because HFCS and sucrose each contain about the same amount of glucose, said Mr. Adamson and Alison Kretser, director of scientific and nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America., which includes Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co., and Sara Lee Corp.

“HFCS is a blend of 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose. Table sugar is made of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose,” Ms. Kretser said.

And Ms. Erickson pointed out that countries that opt for other sweeteners and use little high-fructose corn syrup, such as Mexico and members of the European Union, have similar obesity rates to the United States.

The food industry has come under attack for selling unhealthy foods, which has prompted companies such as McDonald’s and Kraft to change their menus, shrink servings sizes and offer healthier products.

Ms. Erickson said her group is not worried about lawsuits resulting from the article, because the study had no new data and mixed up scientific terms, which should question the validity of the study.

Marguerite Higgins contributed to this story.

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