Perhaps it is enough to hate high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) because the federal government has encouraged its production for decades by imposing high tariffs on sugar imports and by subsidizing corn farmers. (It’s certainly enough for me.) In addition, HFCS-haters blame the sugar for making Americans ever fatter and less healthy. So with so much to hate to go around, when UCLA researchers reported earlier this week that feeding HFCS to pancreatic cancer cells boosts their proliferation in lab dishes, the media jumped on the story. The study’s chief author even suggested that a federal effort should be launched to reduce refined fructose intake modeled on earlier anti-smoking campaigns. Can it be long before health nannies like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Center for Science in the Public Interest begin crusading against the offending sweetener? Of course, this is not the first cancer panic over sweeteners, all of which proved false.
So before jumping on the ban-wagon, let’s consider a couple of points. HFCS generally contains a mixture of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. The favored sweetener, sucrose (a.k.a. table sugar) is actually a molecule combined 50/50 of fructose and glucose. When sucrose is digested in the stomach it is dissociated into the two molecules which are then absorbed into the bloodstream.
The authors of the UCLA study ominously note that our consumption of HFCS has gone up 10-fold since 1970, and you know the conclusion you’re supposed to reach: cancer epidemic! But according to Cancer Facts & Figures 2010 issued by the American Cancer Society: "Incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have been stable in men since 1981, but have been increasing in women by 1.7% per year since 2000." In fact, the overall cancer incidence rate in the U.S. has been going down for nearly a decade, even as Americans pigged out on all those cakes and soft drinks sweetened by HFCS. But it would be silly to argue that HCFS consumption is preventing cancer.