Obesity

Finding Patient Zero in the High Fructose Corn Syrup Hate Epidemic

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mmm…energy

In the Atlantic today, food writer and contrarian James McWilliams traces the roots of the Blame High Fructose Corn Syrup First movement:

Begin with the December 13, 2009 issue of the London Times. In it, Lois Rogers summarized a University of California study that evaluated the impact of fructose on obesity. She quoted the lead scientist as saying, "This is first evidence we have that fructose increases diabetes and heart disease independently of causing simple weight gain." Put simply, fructose—which is simple fruit sugar—can be bad for us.

But Rogers, as Dan Mitchell reported in Slate, somehow got it in her head that fructose and high-fructose corn syrup were the same thing. Here's her lead: "Scientists have proved for the first time that a cheap form of sugar used in thousands of food products and soft drinks [that is, HFCS] can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis."

This viral sentence—one that should have referred to fructose—infected the entire article. Unsuspecting readers were led to believe that fructose was a sweetener solely derived from corn and, more alarmingly, that it was interchangeable with HFCS. The scientist quoted in the piece later remarked that "almost every sentence in the article contained at least one inaccurate statement."

The article, of course, proliferated. Two days after the Times piece ran, Tom Laskawy, writing for the popular environmental website Grist.com, rehashed it. High-fructose corn syrup, he began, was "fueling the obesity crisis." He then replicated the same errors that marred Rogers' debacle. 

Of course, there are good reasons to hate corn sugar—as it shall henceforth be known—including the subsidy-sucking industry behind it. But the nutritional reasons were always dubious, and even some of the most sugar-hostile experts are coming out against the idea that corn syrup is uniquely culpable for American obesity.

Reason has been on this beat for a while now.