You’d think it would be reason to jump for joy when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which tracks how much we eat of the various sweeteners on the market, says we’re using less high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). According to the USDA’s most recent report, consumption of HFCS in the U.S. has declined by 11 percent. As a result, HFCS manufacturers will buy 13 percent less corn this year, compared to 2001. But before you start hailing the wise consumer and chanting “El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido” (the people united will never be defeated), let’s look a tad more closely at what’s actually happening.
The problem is that while high fructose corn syrup consumption is down, overall sugar consumption isn’t. In fact, the consumption of sugar and added sweeteners in our food grew to about 140 pounds per person per year in the U.S., a 20% jump since 1970. Yes it’s true that during the same timeframe, the balance tipped strongly in the direction of HFCS, which reached a high of about 64 pounds per person in 1999, an increase of about 66 percent over 1970 consumption levels. But once HFCS started getting some bad press, sugar marketing organizations fought back via advertising, notably the Sugar Association’s “Sweet by Nature” campaign. And now consumers can have the satisfaction of having started a return to that “natural” and “healthy” ingredient, refined sugar. But this isn’t a better choice; it’s Morton’s Fork — two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion.
The problem isn’t so much which sweetener you use; the real problem is the amountof sweetener you use. Yes, HFCS is arguably worse for you than refined sugar, but any differences are pretty much irrelevant. Refined sugar and HFCS both negatively impact metabolism, which can lead to “metabolic syndrome” and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They also contribute to obesity, gout, insulin resistance, kidney stone formation, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and other equally lovely conditions. I’ve written before about last year’s American Heart Association Report stating that American’s are way over the threshold for healthy sugar consumption. As I said, in addition to contributing to obesity and tooth decay, studies show that high-sugar diets boost triglycerides and increase the risk of stroke, hypertension, and heart disease. And of course, eating a sugar overload depletes the pancreas, builds up cellular resistance to insulin, and increases diabetes risk.
So really, in its renewed devotion to refined sugar, the American public is simply choosing between two evils. The solution is to cut consumption of refined sweeteners of all sorts way down. But that’s not likely to happen, at least not in a dramatic way, given the already established sugar addiction that so many already have.
Even people who know better tend to consume far too much sweetener. The health food fans among us rationalize it by using so-called healthy substitutes like brown sugar, maple syrup, turbinado sugar, brown-rice syrup, and lately agave nectar. In fact, agave has become so popular that it’s found its way to the shelves of Costco, which sells it in large quantities. But according to some exposés coming from the natural health world, agave nectar is a highly refined, highly processed substance that may be no better for you than high-fructose corn syrup. Others insist that Agave really is a healthy alternative, and so debate rages on.
One better option may be stevia. I’ve written before that stevia has numerous benefits over refined sugar, including being low glycemic and potentially helping to control obesity, enhance glucose tolerance, and reduce blood pressure. While the FDA hasn’t exactly endorsed stevia, claiming on its website that stevia isn’t GRAS (generally regarded as safe), the website simultaneously says, that the “FDA has concluded there is no basis to object to the use of certain refined stevia preparations in food.”
This mysterious double-speak translates to mean that based on a few poorly designed studies, the FDA for years refused to approve stevia, claiming that it has a negative effect on “control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.” Meanwhile, the agency chose to ignore the many studies incriminating FDA darlings like aspartame, sucralose, and HFCS — to say nothing about plain old sugar. But things changed when Coca-Cola and Cargill applied for patents to use their own version of stevia derivatives. Apparently, when industry talks, the FDA listens, because the agency did a turnabout (a turnabout I predicted well in advance), moving from a no-stevia policy to its current “no objection” policy, which essentially allows companies like Coca Cola to use stevia derivatives in their products.
But even stevia, like other sugar substitutes does not come “free of charge.” It may, in fact, lead to obesity, since studies show that calorie-free sugar substitutes tend to throw off the body’s natural calorie counting mechanism, leading to overindulgence in other foods. If you crave sweets, the best solution really is to enjoy some berries, which are low glycemic and high in antioxidants. Otherwise, try to minimize your intake of sweetened goodies, no matter which sweetener you opt for; and absolutely avoid anything beyond minimal use of highly refined sweeteners like table sugar and HFCS. And by all means, avoid any use at all of artificial concoctions like aspartame and sucralose.