Sure, let's call HFCS what it really is

Sure, let's call HFCS what it really is

From Marion Nestle, I learned this week that the FDA is taking comments through this week on the Corn Refiners Association request to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar.

Previously, she says, she didn't oppose the move, on the grounds that it didn't matter, except, of course to the corn refiners, since HFCS has come under suspicion as a particular cause of the nation's obesity crisis, and some bottlers have taken to using  — and touting — "real sugar," which is a back-handed slap at HFCS. Now Nestle has changed her mind, for reasons I don't quite understand, even though she reprinted the entirety of her public comment to the FDA on her blog. 

So many issues come up in this discussion. More important than what it's called is whether HFCS, a sweetener refined from corn, really is more harmful than "real" sugar, which is refined from beets, sugar cane, or some other plant. That has been a subject of intense debate among scientists, including University of North Carolina researcher Dr. Barry Popkin, who began in that camp but has since changed his position.

(An aside: Yet another question is whether it is all fructose, not just HFCS, that is a bane to our health, as maintained by University of Colorado researcher Dr. Richard Johnson, author of the convincing book "The Sugar Fix.")

The corn refiners want to change the name because HFCS has been villainized, in part by people who observe, correctly, that its formulation by Japanese chemists in the 1970s coincided with the explosion of obesity in America. But to me, that's an example of "good observation, wrong conclusion." We should blame not chemistry but economics: Because government agriculture policy makes corn in all its forms is artificially cheap, food processors could afford to add sweetener far more liberally than had been economical, and it began appearing in a broad range of un-sweet products, such as salad dressings, ketchup, lunch meats, bread, etc.

Your hot dog, or bun, might not taste sweet, but the accumulated effect was to greatly expand the amount of sugar in the American diet, which would have expanded the American waistline, just by gross arithmetic. But math isn't the only science pertinent here. 

Let's consider "real" drugs for a moment: Cocaine starts as coca, and heroin comes dfrom poppies. Then the plants are "refined," some parts are discarded and the others are intensifies what's leftis refined from poppies — some plant elements intensifies the remaining ones, causing a sensitivity in some people and even a dependence in others. I fit into the latter category — when I ingest refined sugar, my body reacts to it several ways, most significantly in that my body insistently, physically, urges me to have more. From a sales standpoint, isn't that just what you'd want every ingredient to do?

To me, the name-change request is a sideshow to what should be the central question: How does the ubiquity of all processed sweeteners — corn-based or not — affect the eating public? It would be an important question if we were talking only about those who, like me, are predisposed to addiction — a group I estimate to be about 15 million, by extrapolating, quite conservatively, from illegal-drug epidemiology. But this sensitivity isn't a black-and-white condition, and I contend that twice or even three times that number, even if they wouldn't become dependent, would experience higher life quality if they abstained from all refined sugar, as I do. (There's more to that discussion, but here, it'd be a digression.) 

Though I'm quite serious, I am confident that I'll never be proved wrong, because the vast majority of people, whether they've struggled with weight or not, would never be willing to test it! Give up refined sugar? Even for a month, just to see? No cake for my birthday? No sundae on Sunday? No hot crossed bun? Are you mad?

I get it, certainly; I once held the same view. If I couldn't see it or sense it, it wasn't there. And when I could, it wasn't a problem, it was the solution! The nectar of life!

And now, for more than 20 years, I've been living without refined sugar — doing a lot of my own cooking, reading labels, and quizzing waiters about ingredients — and have found a higher quality of life that certainly includes, but goes well beyond, my 155-pound weight loss. (To be quite clear: Eschewing refined sugar is just one part of what worked for me; I don't say everyone should.)

Finally, to return to the original question: I say yes, let's call it corn sugar. It's a sweetener refined from a plant, and that's what the other sugars are. As more people identify refined sugar as a substance to be wary of, calling it what it is will help them know what to avoid.

Michael Prager, the author of “Fat Boy Thin Man,” blogs about food politics at