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Originally published Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Is high-fructose corn syrup making us fat? It's a sticky subject

High-fructose corn syrup is on the ingredient list of products from corn flakes and ketchup to cough syrup and bread. It's popular because it...

Seattle Times staff reporter

High-fructose corn syrup is on the ingredient list of products from corn flakes and ketchup to cough syrup and bread. It's popular because it makes foods sweet, keeps them moist and helps them last.

Manufacturers, particularly beverage makers, like the syrup for its versatility as a sweetener and preservative and its affordability compared with sugar from cane or beets. And despite the critical eye it's received in recent years, many public health officials — Washington state's included — say there have yet to be any studies that clearly indicate this syrup is worse for your health than other types of sugars.

"I think it's still a question mark, and I think it probably has more to do with consumer demand, that some people are interested in having a product that's less refined," said Kelly Morrow, an assistant professor of nutrition and a registered dietician at Kenmore's Bastyr University. "The thing is, it's sugar, and there's never been a time in history that we've eaten as much sugar as we do now."

Some nutrition advocates have railed against high-fructose corn syrup, linking its ubiquity to the nation's obesity epidemic and the rise of type 2 diabetes among adults and children. Find a processed food that doesn't contain it, they challenge, noting that its lower price in turn lowers the cost of many foods we should be eating in moderation.

Judy Simon, a clinic dietician with the University of Washington Medical Center, said she encourages her patients to avoid the syrup and has noticed that those with digestion problems tend to do better with less in their diet.

Seattle's Jones Soda Co. and PCC Natural Markets are shunning the syrup. This month, Jones began selling sodas sweetened with cane sugar. PCC has nearly eliminated packaged foods containing the syrup from its shelves, instead offering products sweetened with alternatives including agave.

The breakdown

Sweetness


The federal government's definition of sugars includes a range of caloric sweeteners.

Sugars include: Sucrose (table sugar refined from sugar cane or sugar beets), brown sugar, raw sugar, glucose (dextrose), fructose, maltose, lactose (sugar found in milk), honey, syrup, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses (a byproduct of beet and cane refining) and fruit juice concentrate.

Read food labels if you are concerned about your sugar intake. The ingredient with the greatest contribution to the product weight is listed first; the ingredient contributing the least is listed last. Visit www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/foodlab.html for more advice on label reading.

How much is too much? The federal government recommends consuming

no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration

For a substance that inspires so much passion, high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, isn't much to look at.

The clear, gooey liquid comes about through a multi-step process that rearranges the molecular structure of corn starch to produce a supersweet syrup that's 90 percent fructose. It's then combined with regular corn syrup, which is 100 percent glucose, to produce a liquid about as sweet as sugar and with a similar composition.

Table sugar is half fructose, half glucose. High-fructose corn syrup comes in ratios of 55 percent fructose to 45 percent glucose, or 42/50, with some other sugars mixed in.

Bigger and sweeter

The syrup began appearing in a multitude of foods in the early 1980s at a savings to manufacturers because it took less to sweeten a product. Between then and now, Americans went from consuming less than a pound of high-fructose corn syrup per person per year in 1970 to 42 pounds in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The nation's obesity rate has soared along nearly the same trajectory. And those who warn against consuming too much of the syrup began connecting these occurrences over the past five years, as public health officials declared obesity an epidemic and began searching for answers. Researchers have said that fructose may contribute to obesity by failing to trigger the body's internal switch that it's full.

The Corn Refiners Association, an industry trade group, counters that the syrup's name is a misnomer given its similar composition to table sugar, and that though the United States is the main consumer of high-fructose corn syrup, obesity rates are rising around the world in places where beet and cane sugar remains the added sweetener of choice. Ultimately, weight gain comes down to taking in more calories than we use, the group says.

And take in more we have. Our consumption of caloric sweeteners of all kinds grew from about 85 pounds per person per year in 1970 to 102 pounds per person in 2005.

Adding sugars

The USDA suggests that most of us limit the amount of added sugar we consume to about 10 to 12 teaspoons per person per day. But in 2005, we ate an average of 30 teaspoons of caloric sweetener per day, much of that in sweetened drinks such as soda and iced tea.

"If you look at sugar per se in terms of its effect on blood sugar, it's kind of all the same," said Ann Fittante, a registered dietician at the Joslin Diabetes Center at Swedish Medical Center. "I think, in general, foods that have high-fructose corn syrup tend to also have more fat and artificial flavorings and colorings, and that's what's not so healthy.

"I don't think people know what they eat."

The amount of added sugars we take into our bodies matters because it affects everything from our weight to how our body produces insulin. We absorb the natural sugars in whole foods like fruit slowly because our body has to do some work to break them down to basic glucose so it can be used in the body as fuel, said Erin MacDougall, program manager for healthy eating and active living with Public Health-Seattle & King County.

When we eat processed foods like cookies or cereal, the sugar, whether high-fructose corn syrup or from cane and beets, is in a concentrated form, is absorbed more quickly and causes blood sugar to soar.

"In nature, we don't eat large amounts of sugar like that. That's how our bodies adapted. We're designed to eat whole foods," she said.

The fructose fall guy?

Most nutrition experts and health professionals say there are no clinical data linking the syrup and obesity to single it out as the fall guy among foods.

"The question comes to, are we consuming more foods? Are we playing more video games? You have all these other factors rolling into the obesity epidemic," said Marcelle Thurston, nutrition coordinator for the state Department of Health.

"At this point, the state is not saying to stay away from high-fructose corn syrup. The state is just really putting the message out about physical activity and access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains."

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

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