Flawed Coverage Sugarcoats Truth About Sweeteners in Those Sodas
It’s no secret that as the fortunes of mainstream media have declined in recent years, so has the quality of news reporting. I say that having worked as both a reporter and editor at various times in my career. But last Thursday may have marked a new low in the standards of professional journalism.
That was the day when the nation’s major network news organizations, together with the still-revered New York Times, managed to thoroughly misconstrue a story of limited significance that they had all decided merited major attention, even while missing a far more important story that revealed the basic inaccuracy of that coverage.
Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the story they all chose to ignore, a development I was sure would rate front-burner treatment on the evening news – as was my sister Linda, who has been writing about this particular issue for the past several months as a blogger for an organization called Food Identity Theft, an offshoot of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for Health. That was the Food and Drug Administration’s denial of a petition filed in 2010 by the Corn Refiners Association to have the name “high fructose corn syrup” officially changed to “corn sugar.”
That rejection represented a major, and all-too-rare, victory for consumers in an ongoing covert war taking place in this country against the forces of Big Agribusiness. The latter, more often than not, has been aided and abetted by government bureaucracy in dictating what we do and don’t eat, with very real effects on Americans’ health, waistlines and life expectancy.
In this particular case, the stakes were extremely high for both sides. The fact is that during the past couple of decades, high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, a laboratory concoction derived from government-subsidized, genetically engineered corn, has replaced the more-expensive, old-fashioned cane sugar as a sweetener in countless products and has been added to many others as well. But during the past few years, the evidence has been piling up that, far from the innocuous ingredient we’d been led to believe it was, HFCS is actually an insidious promoter of weight gain and all its attendant ills.
In fact, there’s an actual correlation between the accelerated addition of HFCS to our collective diet and this country’s obesity “epidemic,” which has now reached the point where an estimated two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese and children are being diagnosed with Type II diabetes at an alarming rate. And as more and more consumers have become aware of this linkage, many have been making a concerted effort to avoid high fructose corn syrup. As a result, some processed-food manufacturers have actually begun removing it from their products.
Seeing its profits threatened by this development, the powerful corn-refining lobby has been fighting back hard. It began by launching a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign called “Sweet Surprise” that made HFCS out to be perfectly natural and depicted its detractors as merely repeating vague, baseless rumors. Some of the campaign ads have also included the statement “Corn sugar or cane sugar – your body can’t tell the difference.”
And that was the basis for the second part of their counterattack: the petition to the FDA to replace that now-odious high fructose corn syrup moniker with the “corn sugar” label instead. They claimed this would help clear up any “confusion” on the part of consumers.
That it would only create more confusion, however, was apparent from the fact that “corn sugar” was already the official name for another substance, also known as dextrose, which happens to be fructose-free – an essential distinction for people who have problems assimilating fructose. The CRA was well aware of that little problem, and tried to dismiss its significance in framing that petition, but was decisively rebuffed in that attempt by the FDA.
Whether the public’s overwhelming opposition to the name change, as reflected in the thousands of comments on the petition, helped influence its rejection by the FDA is anybody’s guess. But there was another major reason the agency gave for turning thumbs down on the petition that directly contradicts last Thursday’s “big story” – the much-debated ban on supersized versions of so-called “sugary drinks” proposed by New York City’s health-conscious mayor, Michael Bloomberg, as hizzoner’s way of “doing something” about the “nationwide problem” of obesity.
At this point, there’s little need to rehash the rhetorical wrangle unleashed by Bloomberg’s announcement, which first appeared as the lead story in Thursday’s New York Times and went on to dominate every evening network newscast. What is important to note is that it was based on a totally fallacious premise that remained unquestioned by all of the reporters, correspondents and commentators covering the controversial edict, including those on the more-analytical PBS.
And that erroneous hypothesis was that the beverages at issue are “sugary” ones, a notion further compounded by network graphics depicting sugar cubes and catch-phrases such as “sugar wars” used in a follow-up by ABC, when, in fact, nearly all the soft drinks involved contain no actual sugar. With the exception of a handful of retro entries in the soda market such as “Pepsi Throwback,” just about all such drinks are sweetened with the aforementioned high fructose corn syrup.
Now, I know that some “experts” like to maintain that there’s no real difference, and that we’re talking about things that have the same caloric content. But not all calories are created equal. The characteristics of high fructose corn syrup are by no means identical to those of old-fashioned sugar. And if the news media had bothered giving that first story I mentioned equal time – or even the time of day, the Times not even having bothered to include it in “all the news that’s fit to print” – they couldn’t have helped but been aware that HFCS and sugar are not considered to be one and the same.
That’s because, right there in that May 30 rejection letter from Michael M. Landa, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, to CRA President Audrae Erickson, it plainly states that according to the FDA’s regulatory approach, “sugar is a solid, dried, and crystallized food; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food” and that “HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose. Thus, the use of the term ‘sugar’ to describe HFCS, a product that is a syrup, would not accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties.”
But, of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize that high fructose corn syrup is not simply sugar by another name. You just have to be old enough to remember when kids and adults consumed substantial amounts of genuinely “sugary” drinks, along with candy bars and lots of other sugar-laden goodies, and only a small percentage of them were ever classified as being overweight (let alone diabetic).
But, oddly, I didn’t see or hear high fructose corn syrup mentioned once in all the coverage and chatter about the proposed ban on “big sodas.” It was almost as if the entire, long-standing controversy over the ubiquitous presence of this decidedly unnatural sweetener in so many of our foods and its effects on our health had vanished in a puff of smoke, just when it should have reached its long-awaited climax.
Nor, for that matter, did anyone bother raising any concerns about the exemption given to diet sodas, which the mayor admitted he himself drinks on hot days. Apparently, the fact that most of these contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener that FDA scientific advisers originally recommended not be approved after it produced brain tumors in lab rats and that has since been the subject of many thousands of reports of adverse reactions ranging from seizures to headaches to blindness, just wasn’t worth pursuing.
Of course, the fact that politicians – even well-intentioned ones, which I think Bloomberg probably is in this particular regard – are often ignorant of or oblivious to basic information about the issues they’re dealing with should come as no big surprise; it has always been thus. But there was a time when journalists actually did their homework and pursued their own lines of inquiry beyond simply parroting the point of view of someone in authority, or asking them superficial questions.
Apparently, it’s now considered much easier to merely report sugarcoated news.
Bill Bonvie is a freelance writer based in Little Egg Harbor Township and a long-time contributor to this page.