How Sweet It Isn’t: High Fructose Corn Syrup Proven to Cause Human Obesity CORRECTION: STUDY DISPUTED

corn syrup foods

You’ve heard it before: a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If people are fat, it’s their own fault for eating too much.

These words are usually spouted by PR hacks for the corn refiner’s association – or the dietitians paid by them. They may not, as it turns out, be true.

We finally have the smoking corn cob, as it were: the study processed-food foes have been waiting for, indicating that high fructose corn syrup may be the cause of the huge upswing in childhood obesity and diabetes.

American consumption of all sugars is much higher than it should be for our health, but high fructose corn syrup has become a larger share of our sugar consumption due to the fact that much of our ingestion of this super cheap, highly processed sugar is involuntary. That’s because it’s not just used as a sweetener in cookies and sodas but as a food additive in things like bread, ketchup and other condiments, pasta sauce and coatings for frozen fried foods.

Why is it used so liberally? It increases shelf life and has other characteristics that food processors like. The reason it’s really cheap is because the government subsidizes corn so heavily (and if you’ve read your Michael Pollan you already know this so I’ll shut up now).

The rise in childhood diabetes and obesity roughly corresponds to the period of time in which food processors started using high fructose corn syrup with such prevalence. That’s why so many scientists have been trying to determine if there’s a link between the two.

Depending on whom you ask, Americans consume anywhere from 45 to 60 pounds of the syrup a year. Scientists and food activists have long thought that the body metabolizes the high fructose corn syrup differently than regular sugar and that it is therefore a big problem for our health.

But the corn refiner industry has been spending a lot of money debunking this hypothesis. Over the past few years, ads have flooded the web, print and TV. Consumers were encouraged to get “the truth” at

The ads make assertions that directly address the many criticisms of high fructose corn syrup:

“Many dietitians agree that high fructose corn syrup, like any sugar, can be part of a balanced diet. Doctors have concluded that high fructose corn syrup doesn’t appear to contribute to obesity any more than other sweeteners.”

But this new finding is the first involving humans, and its results point to a different truth: high fructose corn syrup can actually damage human metabolism.

In a study conducted by University of California researchers, 16 volunteers were given a strictly controlled diet including very high levels of fructose. Another group was given the same diet but with high levels of glucose (regular sugar) replacing the fructose. Over 10 weeks, the volunteers that were given fructose produced new fat cells around their heart, liver and other digestive organs. They also showed signs of food-processing abnormalities linked to diabetes and heart disease. The control group of volunteers on the same diet, but with glucose sugar replacing fructose, did not have these problems.

People in both groups did put on a similar amount of weight, but researchers thought the levels of weight gain among the fructose consumers would be greater over the long term.

Here’s what happens: Fructose seems to bypass the digestive process that breaks down other forms of sugar. It arrives intact in the liver where it causes a variety of reactions. One of the results is a metabolic change that keeps the body from burning fat normally.

This was a small study and it was the first one done on humans, but 10 weeks? That’s some pretty fast acting syrup, if you ask me.

I look forward to seeing how this plays out, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with this rather gruesome video done by New York City’s anti-soda campaign.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: RogueSun Media

UPDATE 1/6/10 FROM THE EDITOR: We received the following statement from a representative of wishing to address statements in this post:

Dr. Kimber Stanhope of UC Davis posted comments in which she discredits the information from the Sunday Times article that was used as the source of information for the story by Vanessa Barrington [at EcoSalon] ( Dr. Stanhope begins her post with the following statement:

“The information about the UC Davis study came from a Sunday Times article in which almost every sentence in the article contained at least one inaccurate statement.”

The statement continues:

The article confuses scientific research about distinctly different sweeteners, treating a study involving abnormally high levels of pure fructose as if it involved high fructose corn syrup, which it does not.  Peer reviewed research has shown that high fructose corn syrup and sugar are handled the same by the body and have similar metabolic effects.

We sincerely regret that we relied on the Times as a source of information for this post. If you have further questions, you may contact us at editor at ecosalon dot com.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.