By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

New evidence that fake food isn’t good for you

Recently I wrote a column for the Guardian criticizing Whole Foods for selling ketchup that contains high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, the synthetic sweetener that has been linked to a catastrophic rise in obesity and Type II diabetes.

Unfortunately, at the time I couldn’t find much in the way of evidence to suggest that HFCS is actually worse for you than plain old sugar. The main problem with HFCS, it seemed, was its ubiquity and low cost, the latter a function of massive federal subsidies for corn. No subsidies, no HFCS. No HFCS, no three-liter bottles of soda.

So I sat up and paid attention yesterday when I came across Elizabeth Cooney’s “Be Well” column in the Boston Globe. Cooney reported that scientists at Princeton University had found that rats fed HFCS gained much more weight than those fed sucrose, packed on abdominal fat (which is considered particularly unhealthy) and had higher levels of fat in their blood. The study was published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

A press release put out by Princeton includes more details. Here is a key excerpt:

“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 psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. “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.”

The release goes on to say the study raises the strong possibility that HFCS is metabolized by the body differently from sucrose.

Hoebel’s methodology has come under fire, as critics say he and his colleagues were hazy about some key details, including how many calories the HFCS-consuming rats were getting as compared to their sucrose-eating cousins. Hoebel answers those criticisms in the Washington Post.

The Princeton study is not definitive, but it’s certainly suggestive. And it demonstrates that Michelle Obama’s crusade for healthy food could, if successful, have far more to do with keeping health-care costs under control than the bill signed by her husband last week.

We’ve already heard cries from the food industry and its defenders that government has no business regulating trans fats. Soon we’re going to hear it about HFCS as well.

But laboratory-created fake food is not a matter of consumer choice. These are dangerous substances that have been foisted on us by powerful corporations looking to save money. Keeping such substances out of the food supply would seem to be well within the purview of government regulation.

Photo (cc) by Jonathan Boeke and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Bob Gardner

    Is “plain old sugar” sucrose, or is it sucrose and fructose in a different ratio than corn syrup? I’ve read different things.

  2. Brad Deltan

    The problem with issues like this is that EVERYBODY has an agenda. Granted, that’s true of all things in life…but when you’ve got an agenda AND literally billions (if not trillions) of dollars are at stake? It’s impossible to know what (or who) to believe. Not just “hard”, but “impossible”.

    I’d like to think that this study is just the first crack in some very old and very thick armor of lies that’ve protected HFCS for decades. But it’s just as possible that these are desperate researchers who’re fudging the numbers just enough to get a fantastic result in the hopes of keeping their department funded. Who’s to say? We don’t know, and we won’t know…probably for years…until enough studies come out that we get a “preponderance of evidence” in favor of one side or the other. Much like with global climate change, that could take decades…and much like with global climate change, there’ll still be powerful and well-funded interests that deny, deny, and deny the truth.

  3. L.K. Collins

    High fructose corn syrup is difficult to avoid in today’s diet.

    If you look carefully at the labels of the products on the grocery store shelves, you will be surprised as to how few items are NOT made with HFCS.

  4. Steve Stein

    Will any president allow the FDA to limit HFCS usage as long as the first caucus is held in Iowa?

    On a related topic, you may still be able to get Coca Cola with sugar instead of HFCS at various Stop and Shops in the area. (I found mine in Bedford.)

  5. Sean Griffin

    I saw this “King Corn” documentary a while back. It definitely covers the bases, corn-wise:

  6. FYI Dan: HFCS is not synthetic (

    It’s not good for you, but it is natural (though processed).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: Maybe I’m misapplying the word “synthetic,” but HFCS comes out of a lab. The Wikipedia article backs that up. HFCS is not something you will ever find in nature.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Bill: In the recent past, the chemicals used to create HFCS have contained mercury, though that may no longer be the case. I think I’ll stick with “synthetic.”

  7. Melissa Perreault

    @L.K. Collins: HFCS is easier to avoid if you shop the perimeter of the store. Fruits, veggies, lean meats, *most* dairy (watch the major brand yogurts) and baked goods from the store bakery (rather than the center aisle breads and cookies with the suspiciously long shelf lives) are healthier and much more likely to by HFCS-free than all the processed junk in the middle aisles.

  8. If you want a great read on HFCS and all the other chemicals in our diet, I recommend reading Nina Planck’s Real Food. And, of course, anything by Michael Pollan.

  9. John Swift

    I think Coca Cola is made with sugar so it is Kosher for Passover. The rest of the year it uses HFCS. It’s also made with sugar in other countries, so if you buy Coke in the imported small bottles you find at some Central American food places, you get sugar.

  10. Not weighing in (Hah! Weighing in!) on one side or the other, but just offering a caution concerning one food item.

    When buying peanut butter, choose the national brands as opposed to the locals or generics. Most locals or generics are comparable, but peanut butters are not. National brands almost invariably use sugar; locals and generics almost invariably use HFCS. Always check the label, of course.

    For my money, peanut butter with sugar is far superior in taste to peanut butter with HFCS. Of course, if you prefer natural – no added sugar(as well as no hydrogenated oils, which is probably even more important) – no need to concern yourself, so far as I know.

  11. L.K. Collins

    Ms. Perrault, it’s even easier to avoid if you make things yourself.

    It takes little extra time, tastes better, and you know what you put in it.

    But it does take planning and patience, both of which seem to be in a limited supply in today’s world.

    Saves money, too.

  12. BP Myers

    @Steve Stein asked: Will any president allow the FDA to limit HFCS usage as long as the first caucus is held in Iowa?


    God help us.

  13. Roberto Scalese

    I think I’d go at the problem in a different way, Dan. Instead of banning foods with HFCS, eliminate or greatly reduce the subsidies given to corn farmers. Or, if eliminating the subsidies is too tough politically to accomplish, then change the target of the money from corn to another crop that’s 1) healthier and 2) easy to grow in Iowa.

    We have HFCS everywhere because out agricultural policy has made corn-related products dirt cheap. Change those subsidies, and the cost of twinkies and soda will go up. At the very least, maybe Hostess, Little Debbie and all them would go back to natural sugar, which is still bad for you, but apparently not as toxic as HFCS. And if these snacks are more expensive, they go back to being occasional “treats,” as my mother used to call them.

  14. Dan Kennedy

    @Roberto: That’s a good idea, too. To be clear, I would not ban any type of actual food. But I think it makes sense to regulate laboratory-created concoctions just as we do drugs and chemicals.

  15. LFNeilson

    The ubiquitous HFCS is still sugar, and it is unnecessarily put into all kinds of foods. It undoubtedly contributes to some people developing Type 2 Diabetes. You may think you don’t eat much sugar, but if you read the labels and look for sugar in all its disguised forms, you’ll be quite surprised.

    Evidently the growing publicity about HFCS has had some effect, at least enough that the corn producers felt it necessary to air some sweet-talking commercials.

    How do we tackle obesity without taking out the HFCS? Attempting to ban it would undoubtedly set off a political backlash.

  16. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Roberto is right – add to that ending price supports for sugar and you’ll drive yet another nail in the coffin of HFCS. We’d be collectively healthier by ending all subsides for industrial agriculture. Even if you ban HFCS, for example, the use of corn for animal feed would continue to make our meat supply considerably less wholesome than it should be.

    It’s still not clear to me why HFCS is poison and Honey, which is also high in fructose, is a health food.

  17. After seeing the King Corn documentary a year ago, I stopped drinking soda. I am trying to avoid HFCS but it is very difficult. It is present in so many items.

    The second episode in the Jamie Oliver “Food Revolution” was telling. The kids after seeing what goes into chicken nuggets still wanted to eat them. We have a long way to go to change our food habits!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: Among the more memorable facts in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is that Chicken McNuggets contain trace elements of lighter fluid. Mmmm …

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