Readers of BalanceofFood.com know how much we hate high-fructose corn syrup. So when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom proposed a surcharge on all drinks with high-fructose corn syrup, we were thrilled.
"There's a well-established nexus between obesity, which is caused by high-fructose corn syrup, and the increased health care costs for the city," mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard told the press.
Unfortunately, the soda proposal would affect only large retailers, not mom-and-pop stores.
The tax does come at a crossroads with our philosophy of not using punishment to convince people to change their behavior. But high-fructose corn syrup is that bad. And the idea of people choosing a soft drink made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup is too delicious to pass up.
The chances of this happening aren't that high, and we are talking San Francisco. But this proposal is a way to open the dialogue.
Unfortunately, that dialogue includes those that defend high-fructose corn syrup. One of those organizations (no surprise) is the Corn Refiners Association. The organization teaming up with them is a surprise: the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Sometimes, CSPI goes overboard. Okay, a lot of times. So when they are underwhelming on a major topic, it is startling to see. The organization has been in favor of small taxes on soft drinks to help pay for healthier elements, including bike paths, nutrition education, and other obesity-prevention programs. But it portrays high-fructose corn syrup as being equal to sugar.
"We respectfully urge that the proposal be revised as soon as possible to reflect the scientific evidence that demonstrates no material differences in the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sugar," wrote CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson and Corn Refiners Association president Audrae Erickson. "The real issue is that excessive consumption of any sugars may lead to health problems."
I love a sentence that says nothing is wrong with our product, but too much causes health problems.
Sally Squires of the Lean Plate Club at washingtonpost.com said this in a recent online chat:
"High fructose corn syrup is an added sugar. And as an added sugar, it's certainly something that we all need to limit. But even the leading scientists who first worried about high fructose corn syrup have now said that it is no better nor worse than any other added sugar."
Unfortunately, the CSPI and Sally Squires are mistaken for a number of reasons. Perhaps they are technically correct, but their "truth" is misleading.
*If you compare equal amounts of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup – but since HFCS is so cheap (thanks to being cheaper in cost thanks to subsidies on the sugar market and financial advantages for large corn-processors, including Archer Daniels Midland), often there is more HFCS in a product than sugar if sugar were used.
* The "urban myth" mentality to justify the use of HFCS isn't mythical. The "experts" quoted by CSPI and Squires apply it to the sweeteners themselves, not to how the subsequent products are used by consumers. Soft drinks with HFCS don't quench your thirst like soft drinks with sugar. Remember when commercials for soft drinks spoke of quenching your thirst. They don't anymore because, well, they don't. Since they don't quench thirst, consumers drink more of the product. Those who remember 12 oz. servings, and small drinks in restaurants are astounded to see 24 oz. and 28 oz. bottles for sale. And a lot of those people are drinking that much in one setting.
* The correlation between obesity levels and use of HFCS could be labeled as coincidence. But there is no other major factor with food other than the introduction of HFCS. And even if you think it is a coincidence, shouldn't the use of HFCS invite a few experiments to see what is behind the jump in obesity levels?
* The other "urban myth" is that HFCS causes people to overeat. Because HFCS is so overtly sweet as compared to sugar, it becomes a feeding cycle of virtually endless consumption. And proof of that is in the final point, which is:
*A study against HFCS. "A new study suggests that a diet with high fat and high fructose corn syrup may cause severe liver damage in people with a sedentary lifestyle."
The amount of high fructose corn syrup was equivalent to 8 cans of soda a day, but only 4 24-oz. bottles, the amount of fat was about the same in a typical McDonald's meal.
One of the scientists cited preliminary research to suggest fructose suppresses the body's feeling of fullness, meaning that the mice on the diet did not know when they were supposed to stop.
Nutritionists and dietitians are very fond of saying no food needs to be banned. But high-fructose corn syrup isn't really a food. There is a lot of political pressure to not go after HFCS. That is all the more reason to go after HFCS as a key factor in making consumers obese.
Defenders of HFCS have shifted the blame from a key factor to being the only factor. We aren't saying HFCS is the only factor. We are saying HFCS is a key factor. And San Francisco's efforts should be the beginning of a dialogue, not the end.