Soda and processed-food manufacturers have long insisted that all sugars are essentially the same. Yet, simultaneously they're delicately backing away from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as one study after another links the corn-based sweetener to obesity and diabetes. While the market for HFCS declined by 9% in 2008, says Ken Roseboro of the Organic and Non-GMO Report, it was still used in 55% of all sweetened edibles in 2009.
New findings published this month in the journal Cancer Research by University of California Los Angeles researchers could further sour the public's sentiment toward the super-sweet, super-cheap syrup and reduce its use even further. HFCS is 55% fructose and 42% glucose. The study found that pancreatic tumor cells metabolized fructose differently than glucose and that the cancer cells "readily metabolized fructose to increase proliferation." In other words, as the headline reads, "Cancer cells slurp up fructose."
Lawsuits Are Sure to Follow
This is a direct challenge to the Corn Refiner's Association, which made a splash in 2008 with commercials belittling consumers who disdained high-fructose corn syrup as self-righteous and incoherent. (The ads inspired a little outrage and a lot of spoofs and rebuttals.) In March 2010, the association put on its website a clip from CBS News calling differences in the chemistry of HFCS and table sugar "an urban myth." And despite the occasional study linking HFCS consumption to obesity, as well as insulin resistance and diabetes, the prevailing sentiment of the food industry was that the difference between HFCS and cane or beet sugar was negligible.
"Fructose is a natural, simple sugar commonly found in a variety of sweeteners, including table sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup, as well as in many fruits, vegetables, and juices," says Audrae Erickson, President of the Corn Refiners Association in a statement. "This study does not look at the way fructose is actually consumed by humans, as it was conducted in a laboratory, not inside the human body. The study also narrowly compared pure fructose to pure glucose, neither of which is consumed in isolation in the human diet."
Despite the Corn Refiner's Association's best efforts, high fructose corn syrup is still being maligned. But it is this latest study linking the sweetener to pancreatic cancer that may be the weapon of choice for eager attorneys in defense of angry consumers. As Frost & Sullivan industry analyst Christopher Shanahan says, laughing, when asked whether there will be lawsuits, "Yes, I'd put money on it."
But as damning as the headlines of this latest study seem to be, other scientists caution that further research needs to be done before people leap to the assumption that fructose helps cancer proliferate. The science blogger known as "Orac" writes that the research is "rather interesting," but far more work should be done before it's seen as proof that HFCS causes pancreatic cancer. "It's far too early to make any sort of recommendations about high fructose corn syrup and diet based on this study," he writes.
In a statement, the American Beverage Association said: "It is important to recognize that this was not a clinical trial performed on humans, but rather a test tube study. In addition, the isolated cancer cells were subjected to extremely high levels of fructose that are unlikely in normal human metabolic processes. In fact, human beings do not typically consume fructose by itself, as it is normally found in combination with glucose in fruits and vegetables, or in the form of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup as found in myriad foods and beverages. The fact remains that no single food or beverage causes cancer, including pancreatic cancer."
Beverage Makers Under the Gun
The beverage companies are the easiest targets in the crusade against HFCS, says Shanahan. For "the corn manufacturers, the sugar manufacturers, the processed-food manufacturers, there is an underlying fear that, in the next 10 years, this is going to be a critical challenge similar to the top-down mandates that impacted the tobacco industry."
He points to a central problem of the U.S. agricultural system: Very few crops -- soy, wheat and especially corn -- account for a huge percentage of the American diet, especially when you consider the soy- and corn-fed livestock and myriad processed foods made from corn derivatives.
"The recent obesity measure, weight issues, diabetes, all can be routed back to the American diet," Shanahan says, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is complicit in the problem, with rich subsidies for wheat, soy and corn, the top recipient. The amount varies widely from year to year, but corn subsidies totaled $73.8 billion from 1995 to 2009. With corn so cheap, there's incentive to put it in more and more foods in place of other, more expensive, ingredients. Now it's in practically every processed food, and lots of nonfoods, too, including ethanol for fuel.
Getting the HFCS Out
Roseboro, of the Organic & Non-GMO Report, says change is coming. Big brands like Hunt's (CAG), Gatorade (PEP) and Starbucks (SBUX) are reformulating some of their products to remove HFCS. "I think the fact that big companies [like Hunt's and Pepsico] are going to stop using it is indication that a trend is going to be that companies will be taking it out, using sugar instead, and the smaller companies will follow along."
Shanahan agrees. "Food manufacturers are starting to diversify their product line to include cane sugar," he says. "The corn refiners are going to stop making corn sweeteners, and make ethanol instead."
It might be longer than he thinks before beverage companies and, most important, government agencies decide it's time for change, however. Switching away from corn sweeteners won't be easy. Cheap corn is, after all, the basis of many processed foods. It's not just the HFCS, of course. Corn is the source of oil for salad dressing and frying, of coloring for sodas, juices and yogurts, of livestock feed that makes $1 hamburgers possible.
"Over time, consumers will change their diets as they are taught the real cost of food," Shanahan says. "This is going to be a diminishing problem." Food and beverage makers have plenty of skin in this game and may as well get ahead of eventual regulation, he says, adding that a healthful product line is where the industry is headed. "Food processors are only doing what the man wants. They're going to sell you healthy food if you want it."
Just as with tobacco, we're in for a decade or two of growing awareness about the destructive effects of our subsidized cheap-sweetener system, with lawsuits and regulations to follow. But we'll get over it, Shanahan says. "In this transitional period, people don't want to eat the stuff, but they'll be more than happy to put it in their cars."
This story was updated to include a statement from the Corn Refiners Association.