HFCS, the precautionary principle, and the myth of absolute certainty
This is Part 2 of 2 posts of in-depth analysis into the breakthrough work on High Fructose Corn Syrup and weight gain by Princeton researchers.
As a follow-up to my email exchange with Princeton HFCS study lead author Dr. Bart Hoebel, I thought I might dig into some of the underlying issues surrounding the HFCS Wars. I understand and accept that a healthy skepticism is necessary in scientific debate. But reading the responses from “independent” voices (i.e. people not affiliated with Big Food or King Corn), it’s hard not to feel that some of this skepticism is far from healthy.
Some of it, I fear, involves many critics having bought in to generalized industry demands of absolute certainty when evaluating the risks presented by industrial chemicals and additives (though derived from corn and defined as “natural” by our government, high fructose corn syrup is nothing if not an industrial product). We allow corporations to wield this requirement of absolute certainty as a shield against any reasonable use of regulators’ “precautionary principle,” i.e. the point where the need for government regulation to protect individuals or the environment trumps corporate interests.
A good definition comes from the European Commission, which requires government regulation of a substance or industrial practice when “scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive, or uncertain.” The existence in Europe of such a strong precautionary principle is the reason that millions of people there are protected from a slew of toxic chemicals and dangerous practices — from GMOs to atrazine to artificial food coloring (yes, there is a large body of research on the dangers of artificial food coloring) — while we remain exposed.
In fact, I think there’s even more at work here. One way to look at the effect of something like HFCS is at the individual level — how does it affect your health to consume it? What additional risk (or not) of disease or early death does it confer on you? For many, that difference compared to table sugar is relatively small and thus is deemed irrelevant — perhaps even dangerous to discuss. Cut way back on all sweeteners and you’re better off, goes the logic, so what’s the point in fighting over which sweetener is worse. This, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is a large part of the objection many have to continued research into the health effects of HFCS.
But it’s also important to look at population-level effects. The increase in an individual’s health risks in consuming HFCS rather than table sugar may indeed be small, but when you scale it up to a nation of 300 million people (much less billions of people worldwide), those small individual increases in risk may add up to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of cases of diabetes and heart disease and billions of dollars in additional health costs to society. And while there may be some cases where HFCS severely and acutely affects an individual’s health, these longer term population-level effects of HFCS shouldn’t be ignored and don’t make the Princeton study results any less valid — but I suspect that, to many analysts, they are and it does.
I’d add one more thing — why exactly does HFCS need any defenders? I mean, why shouldn’t the bar to ban it be incredibly low? It was introduced on a mass scale 1) as a means to soak up excess corn — corn that humans couldn’t eat unprocessed — and 2) as an unintended consequence of the continued existence of a powerful sugar cartel. ADM — the company that probably profits most from HFCS and is definitely not in the sugar business — has become one of the top supporters of continued sugar quotas and tariffs since they have kept sugar prices high and thus kept HFCS competitive.
HFCS is the love-child of misguided protectionist trade polices along with misguided agricultural policies and by no means does it represent real “innovation.” In my view, even the hint of health issues should be enough to invoke the precautionary principle. But not in the US, where if something sickens us (or even kills us) slowly enough, companies get to market it, profit from it and — if and when it ever does get banned — receive full immunity from future lawsuits.
If the debate over another corporate bugaboo — climate change — has taught us anything, it’s that there is no scientific result of sufficient clarity or certainty that can overpower huge financial or political incentives to ignore it. And that’s where we find ourselves with HFCS, as well as with dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of other industrial chemicals. We ignore this phenomenon at our growing peril.