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Thursday, July 15, 2004 06:35 am

The fat rap

Growers, processors dispute obesity-corn syrup link

Corn growers and processors are fixing to pop a kernel over a recent report that blames Americans' expanding waistlines on the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup.

Among those leading the charge: the St. Louis-based National Corn Growers Association, which recently called on members to launch a letter-writing campaign, and the Washington, D.C.-based Corn Refiners Association, which represents such processors as Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co.

What prompted the concern? A story in the April edition of the AARP Bulletin, a monthly publication that reaches more than 20 million Americans age 50 and older. In the story, "What's Worse than Sugar?", it was reported that "dietary experts and scientists are singling out. . . high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a reason for the startling rise in obesity [and] a related increase in diabetes cases."

According to studies cited by in the report, HFCS, unlike sucrose (a.k.a. table sugar), is assimilated by the liver, which releases enzymes that instruct the body to store fat.

HFCS began replacing sugar as a sweetener in the '70s. It's now used in range of products, including candy bars and soft drinks. Annual consumption of the sugar substitute exceeds 60 pounds per person in the United States, up from about half a pound in 1960.

Among the beneficiaries of the switch are Illinois growers, who are second in the nation for corn production, and processors such as ADM, which produces three HFCS formulations used by food manufacturers for soft drinks, low-calories diet foods, and general-use foods.

The CRA strongly disputes the HFCS-obesity link. "No single food ingredient, including high-fructose corn syrup, is the culprit behind the nation's obesity epidemic," says association spokesman Bob Adams. "Increased caloric intake and lack of physical activity are to blame."

CRA president Audrae Erickson notes that obesity is also on the rise in Russia, Europe, and Mexico, where there's little or no HFCS consumption.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is a critic of the food-processing industry and U.S. diets but sees a bigger problem in the heavy consumption of soft drinks, which he calls "liquid candy."

"It wouldn't make much difference if soft drinks were sweetened with sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup," he says.

Similarly, Sara Lopinski, a dietitian at St. John's Hospital, says that the obesity epidemic has more to do with overall consumption than with a single ingredient.

"High-fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are both sugars. HFCS is sweeter than table sugar, so you can use a little less to get the same level of sweetness. It's more an issue that Americans are eating too much and we're not moving around enough.

"A teaspoon of table sugar has 12 calories, and a teaspoon of HFCS has 18. Honey has 21 calories per teaspoon. Table sugar is sucrose, and, when ingested, it is broken down by the body into sucrose and fructose. HFCS is fructose to begin with. There are so many other variables beyond sucrose and fructose calories."

That said, St. John's has not introduced HFCS into recipes.

"We're still using table sugar," says Lopinski.

The AARP Bulletin article is available on the Web at www.aarp.org/bulletin/yourhealth/ Articles/a2004-04-22-sugar.html.

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