Not sweet on HFCS

There’s an ad at Eastern Market Metro station on the Hill promoting Pepsi True.

It tells passers-by that the soda has “NO High Fructose Corn Syrup”, the sweetener singled out by some obesity experts in recent years for contributing to the explosion in obesity and type 2 diabetes across the nation. 

{mosads}With mounting evidence that obesity, diabetes and heart disease are actually caused by the added sugars in our diet, food companies have been scrambling to escape the blame. But while they have begun to reduce the High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in products ranging from sodas to yogurt, the total amount of sugars remains alarmingly high.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services Department are readying new dietary advice for the Obama administration as part of a five-yearly review. As the Post’s Dana Milbank noted in his column last week, the recommendations of a scientific advisory committee that no more of 10 percent of daily calories should come from sugars are being fought tooth and nail by the sugar lobby.

When three years ago I began researching my novel Food Fight, set in the food industry in DC, it was after noticing the quantities of sugars in bread and savory foods. This led me to HFCS, which according to the child obesity expert Dr Robert Lustig “tricks” the brain into craving more food and stimulates excessive and continued consumption.

What shocks me now, is that three years on, the debate is still raging over the role of added sugars in the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Put it this way: in 1980, the amount of HFCS consumed by the average American was zero. Then the food manufacturers began using it widely and now we have a health crisis. Surely the connection is there for all to see?

The scientific committee’s report to the Agriculture and Health secretaries concludes that “the current evidence base has never been stronger.”  While addressing the overall picture of harmful additives, on sugars it says: “Strong and consistent evidence shows that intake of added sugars from food and/or sugar- sweetened beverages are associated with excess body weight in children and adults.” It says there is “strong evidence” that higher consumption of added sugars increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, and “moderate evidence” that such higher consumption increases the risk of hypertension, stroke and coronary heart disease in adults.

According to Margo Wootan, director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “the strength of the evidence is now enough to show a direct link with added sugars and obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But the science is never going to be strong enough for the industry.”

A total 117 million Americans –  half of all adults – now live with preventable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, diet-related cancers and heart disease. Two thirds of adults and nearly one third of children are overweight or obese.

This is a health disaster. But what’s to be done? For too long, we have relied on voluntary measures and education while the sugar industry was allowed to shift the focus away from its own ingredients onto the responsibility of parents and the food they choose to buy.

But at the moment you need a biology degree to understand the small – indeed really tiny – print on the Nutrition Facts on so much of our processed food. If I drink a can of soda, I’m likely to be consuming 130 percent of the daily calorific value from sugars. The organic low fat yogurt in my fridge contains 25 grams of sugars.

Wootan says that High Fructose Corn Syrup is not the main villain: “biologically, it’s just as bad as table sugar,” she says. “It’s not worse.” Her organization wants added sugars to be listed separately on Food Facts. The CSPI also spearheaded moves in the early 2000s to get soda out of schools, although it took a decade to succeed.

I believe that as we saw with Big Tobacco, voluntary measures are no longer enough. The sugar lobby is big and powerful with a persuasive marketing machine. With a Republican-dominated Congress, the public needs to be convinced that tough measures are needed to put pressure on the lawmakers.

Some states are already acting: in California and New York State, moves are afoot to put health warnings on sodas about added sugars. There are proposals for a soda tax in Vermont. Some obesity-related lawsuits have targeted Big Food. But the federal government needs to stiffen its spine. It’s time to get tough with the sugar industry.

Penketh is a freelance journalist. Her novel, Food Fight, is out now (Garstang Press $12.50)


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