It’s the beginning of October and as the cooler temperatures and colorful leaves start to make an appearance, every retailer in America is switching storefronts to include pumpkins and of course, Halloween candy. The orange and black packages are cropping up in drugstores and supermarkets nationwide, and the glycemic high that lasts from Halloween through Easter has certainly begun. Since the lipid-phobia of the late 80s, high-sugar candies like gummy bears, gum drops, and candy corn have marketed themselves as “fat-free,” but, because most candy contains high-fructose corn syrup, recent research might make you reconsider those “fat-free” claims.
In June, I detailed the new marketing campaign of the Corn Refiners Association and the numerous health, environmental, and political concerns associated with corn in the United States. The full-page color ads that the industry trade group placed in major papers throughout the country turned out to be just the start of their efforts to convince us to embrace corn syrup. This past month, the Corn Refiners Association ramped up their marketing efforts to include television commercials featuring mothers, families, and children all excited about corn syrup. I could barely believe my eyes when I saw one of the ads, as the people on the screen embraced the sugary substitute with a zeal that no one should have for processed corn.
Aside from using more fertilizers and pesticides than any other crop and receiving political subsidies, corn has likely been one of the biggest culprits in the downward spiral of American health. While corn syrup has been nutritionally questionable for several decades, little research has been conducted on human volunteers, allowing the potential health effects of this sugary substitute to remain a mystery — and a main ingredient in packaged and processed foods. It is this lack of research that allowed the Corn Refiners Association to tout in their new campaign that sugar, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup are, “nutritionally … all the same.”
On their website, the Corn Refiners Association notes that the American Medical Association, “recently concluded that ‘high fructose corn syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners.’” Would the AMA make such an assertion on behalf of corn syrup? On June 17, 2008, the AMA did in fact state that current research is not conclusive enough to indicate that high fructose corn syrup contributes to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners, but it also called for additional research. But don’t go reaching for the candy corn yet — a stamp of approval from the AMA doesn’t necessary mean so much. After all, this is the organization that accepted millions of dollars to advertise Sunbeam products back in the 1990s, and then settled out of court to avoid a lawsuit for a breach of contract. It is also the same organization that has historically earned millions of dollars from food, tobacco, and pharmaceutical advertisements in their peer-reviewed journal, and today it has a 22 page promotional guide for potential advertisers.
I have been wondering for the past two months about the cozy connection of these events — what would precipitate both the marketing campaing and the AMA’s statement in such short-order? In the June 2008 edition of the Journal of Nutrition, researchers from the University of Texas published new research that apparently caused both the Corn Refiners Association and the AMA to react at the exact same time. The research proved what many would suspect — that high-fructose corn syrup and sugar are not the same, and that the body reacts to them quite differently. Subjects were given sugary drinks with different concentrations of fructose and other sugars. The head researcher noted, “When fructose was present in the sweet drink, whether it was at 50 percent of its concentration, or 75 percent, we found that the fat synthesis rate was more than twice, almost three times the rate as when we just fed glucose alone.” In a nutshell, high-fructose corn syrup produces fat in your body at more than double the rate of sugar.
High-fructose corn syrup is clearly not nutritionally the same, and it’s time that doctors, politicians, and the American public acknowledge this. To be fair, the University of Texas study is just one small sample study. Yet, the first eleven citations in the peer-reviewed article are other studies with similar results. A quick Google search turned up dozens of other studies (and interestingly enough, the corporate advertiser for the term “high fructose corn syrup” on Google is the Corn Refiners Association’s website). Our bodies know the difference between sugar and corn, which rising rates of diabetes and obesity demonstrate quite well. Unfortunately, the Corn Refiners’ $30 million marketing campaign with flashy full-page ads may fool one too many people. With the AMA already speaking out against mounting scientific evidence, and corn subsidies firmly secured in the Farm Bill, American public health is brushed aside for corporate interests and money.
I remain hopeful however because every marketing scheme is based on an underlying panic. In 1999 the Corn Refiners Association had a banner year because Americans, per capita, consumed 63.7 pounds of high fructose corn syrup. It was an all time high that continues to decline. Since then, annual per capita consumption has decreased by 5.5 pounds — welcome news for the American waistline. As Americans continue to question the sources of their food and become savvy shoppers, I suspect corn refiners may have to rethink their advertising and perhaps even their entire business plan. In addition, as more cities and states like New York City and California begin to implement caloric labeling on foods in stores and restaurants, politicians will become increasingly aware of the role they play in the burgeoning size of the average American. While the next farm bill is another five years away, its not too early to start thinking about the ways it should work for the American people and our health. And the last thing America needs is more corn.
Do yourself a favor as you celebrate America’s ghoulish, candy holiday and look for treats that don’t contain high-fructose corn syrup. Your body will certainly thank you, and you might even be able to avoid a New Year’s resolution to lose five pounds next year.