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April 1, 2010 / Katie

Is HFCS the culprit in the “Obesity Crisis”?

NAAFA is reporting mounting evidence that high fructose corn syrup leads to higher rates of obesity.

A quote:

Researchers at Princeton University found that HFCS is not the same as sugar when it comes to weight gain. Rats who ate HFCS gained significantly more weight than rats who ate table sugar — even when their caloric intake was the same. In addition, long-term consumption of HFCS also led to abnormal increases in body fat (especially in the belly) and an increase in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.

“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the conditions of our tests,” said Bart Hoebel, Ph.D. “When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”

This is very interesting, and frankly, a bit alarming–but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. I’m not alarmed that HFCS is making us fatter, because I don’t believe I have seen evidence that this is such a terrible thing. It’s not good, of course, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think we need to panic over this.

What I am concerned about is that this may cause/bolster moral panic about fatness. You know, the kind of panic that shames, “if you hadn’t drank all that soda and eaten all that candy, fatty, you might not have gotten fat. And now that you are fat, you fatty fat fatty, you are going to make me and my family fat too and we’re all going to DIE.” That kind of moral panic doesn’t address social and political factors that lead to certain types of food being consumed in greater quantities than others among USAmericans, particularly by more folks of lower socio-economic class and non-white race. I’m talking about things like US government subsidies for corn, beef, and dairy and lack of subsidies for fresh fruits and vegetables (warning for both links; the first one is very fatphobic and the second one contains some fatphobic content).

I’m also concerned that this is going to make people think even more that all fat people consume huge quantities of “junkfood” and all thin people are eating healthfully. That is simply not true, and it doesn’t do any of us any good to assume that. Just as a case in point, my husband has always been thin, and before meeting me, he used to take a 12oz can of regular (not diet!) soda to lunch with him every single day at work. I expressed surprise when I saw Costco-cases of Coke in his pantry, because, not being a soda drinker myself, I couldn’t imagine how any single person would want to have that much Coke around. (Note: I was surprised but not judgmental; my husband is an adult and can decide what types of food and drink he wants to put in his body and he doesn’t need any unsolicited input from me thankyouverymuch). After we talked about it, he thought about it for a while and ultimately decided that he didn’t want to be taking in that much HFCS every day, so he has switched to a reusable water bottle with his lunch.

So in this case, the HFCS wasn’t making him fat (so just because it appears to make “every rat” fat in the study, it clearly does NOT make every person who consumes it fat). And, I was fat despite never touching the stuff. Seriously, the only time I consume HFCS is if I don’t know that it’s in something I’ve been served at a friend’s home or a restaurant. Before writing this post, I went searching through our cupboards, scouring our whole condo for something—anything—that had HFCS in it, and I couldn’t find a single thing. This isn’t to put myself up on some moral high horse about food, but rather to point out that we’re really not eating much HCFS. But my thin husband has put on a little bit of weight lately, after cutting HFCS out of his diet. And I didn’t lose any weight at all when I made an effort to cut it out as completely as possible, about 8 years ago. If anything, I’ve put on weight since then.

But anyway, my whole point here is that yes, we should pay attention to this study because if HCFS is making us fatter, that is interesting to know. But just getting fatter isn’t necessarily terrible, and there may be other, much more serious, problems associated with consumption of HCFS. But while it is interesting, this study is not a magic bullet that suddenly solves the so-called “obesity crisis.” The issue is complex—socially, politically, and medically. And we have to keep in mind that when we’re talking about obese people and potential reasons we are obese, we are talking about people, not lab rats.

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7 Comments

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  1. Chris Gregory / Apr 1 2010 5:26 pm

    Rats and mice expend a lot of calories to acquire food. Their metabolisms are very, very different to our own. That sedentary mice get fat on excess calories is not at all surprising to anyone, or shouldn’t be. But it has next to nothing to do with human nutritional requirements or processes.

    The results are lacking any kind of context and the methodology is unclear (and seemingly quite flawed). I don’t think it’s anything more than an indication of a possibility that may or may not exist (and remember, this stuff has been studied a lot. That this is the first indication of a difference is much more likely to be a false positive due to flaws in the experiment than a new discovery).

    So no, you probably shouldn’t adjust your behaviour based on this ‘evidence’. It can be very hard to isolate a single factor that makes one person sick from all the other possible factors. But in this case, we have lots of countries where HFCS consumption is minimal, places like Australia and Europe. In these places, you find the exact same increase in weight over the same time period as in the US, but no HFCS consumption. That’s pretty good (deductive but valid) evidence that HFCS has nothing to do with the obesity epidemic.

    But there are various economic and social factors at work that would like to blame HFCS (and cheap corn) for all the world’s ills, so it’s a case of guilty until proven innocent. That’s pretty much where the ‘debate’ stands. Personally, I think it’s all a non-issue and a beat-up in the interests of the social groups that profit from food prices going up.

    • Katie / Apr 1 2010 5:29 pm

      thanks for all that good information, Chris!

    • Tolonda / Apr 3 2010 7:49 pm

      I really appreciated most of your comment, but would like to point out that this statement:

      It can be very hard to isolate a single factor that makes one person sick from all the other possible factors.

      is rather problematic in this context. Being fat and being sick are two entirely different things.

  2. Patsy Nevins / Apr 1 2010 6:24 pm

    And as you alluded to, there are as many thin & average-sized people consuming foods…sometimes large amounts of food…made with high fructose corn syrup, who are NOT getting fat, or necessarily developing diabetes, dying young, or whatever ELSE they want to lay at the door of this form of sugar. I know of people who have been eating some of these foods regularly for a long time (probably, in some cases, for years before they were made with HFCS, as I don’t know when they began routinely using it), who are still alive & functioning at a ripe old age. I am very frustrated with this anxiety, even panic, over food ingredients, this FEAR of our food, which afflicts so many, including apparently a lot of people who call themselves ‘fat activists’. Food is food, & unless it is spoiled, contaminated in some way, deliberately poisoned, or you as an individual are allergic to it, it is not evil or dangerous. Corn & its byproducts are NOT the Devil Incarnate.

    • Katie - not the author / Apr 2 2010 9:57 am

      Patsy, you make some really interesting points, I guess I have mostly been in the HFCS is bad category because it seems like (real scientific) you starting seeing heavier and heavier people when more products started being made with HFCS.

      A while ago I figured that if I was exposed to ammonia I’d get a fairly severe migraine type headache and when I asked my doctor if I was allergic to it, he said no, I was sensitive to it, which I suppose is splitting hairs. My point is that maybe some people are sensitive to HFCS and some people aren’t and that might be where the difference lie.

      Completely unrelated, a friend of mine pointed out that obesity rates starting going up when microwaves became commonplace household items since you could use it to quickly create a snack or meal.

    • Katie / Apr 2 2010 10:02 am

      Patsy, thanks for your comment! I am wary of HFCS because it’s not exactly a “corn byproduct” as it has undergone some significant chemical changes. I am concerned by studies I am seeing about how the body does not know how to process HFCS in the same way as sugar, which I’m concerned can lead to problems (and I’m not including fatness in that, but other issues perhaps related to metabolism or insulin resistance). I also happen to loathe the flavor of it compared to real sugar, which is possibly the main reason I don’t have it in my home.

      Anyway, as to whether it’s harmless or not, the jury is still out for me and I’m remaining skeptical in the meantime.

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