Corn Syrup: Public Enemy Number One?

A recent study may have uncovered the phantom menace behind the rise in obesity
( [email protected] ) May 10, 2004 07:32 PM EDT

Stories about the growing global epidemic of obesity are everywhere. Every day we’re bombarded with staggering statistics such as:

• 66% of people in the US are overweight and almost half of those are clinically obese;

• 17.6 million British children under the age of five are overweight;

• the numbers of people with diabetes will more than double in the next 25 years from 171 million to 360 million people worldwide.

Of course there are the usual suspects—fast food is a popular one. Not surprising considering the average combo packs a whooping 1,200 to 1,500 calories—more than half the daily requirement for an average male and almost the full daily requirement for an average woman. The influx of junk foods like chips, frozen pizzas and chocolate bars loaded with trans-fat is another popular suspect. The ingestion of large quantities of high calorie, high sugared pop is also being accused. And we can’t ignore the overall “slothification” of Western society as well. Lack of physical activity is a major contributor to the rise in obesity.

While the combination of all of these factors have played their part, a recent study may have uncovered a far worse culprit, one whose introduction into the food industry can be directly connected to the rise in obesity and spike in cases of type 2 diabetes—high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Consumption rose 1000% over 20 years

Researchers combed nearly 100 years of data on American diets and found a huge increase in processed carbohydrates—especially corn syrup—and a large drop in the amount of fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. It parallels a spike in the number of cases of type 2 diabetes, a condition caused by the body's increasing inability to properly metabolize sugars.

Many food manufacturers prefer HFCS to cane sugar since it's cheaper and tastes sweeter. The study points out that HFCS is used to sweeten all non-dietary US soft drinks and most fruit drinks. Scientists also stated that consumption of HFCS rose more than 1000% from 1970 to 1990.

Most startling about HFCS, the scientists also found the sweetener appears to work differently than other sugars in that it stifles the body's ability to feel full, encouraging a person to eat more.

As much 700 calories/day from HFCS

Researchers reviewed consumption records from the Agriculture Department from 1967 to 2000, combining those data with previous research and their own analyses. As a result, they calculated that Americans two years old and older consume an average of 132 calories per day through HFCS.

The study also concluded that the top 20% of consumers of caloric sweeteners in the US ingest an average of 318 calories per day from HFCS. For some, it's as much as 700 calories per day. The study calculated on average 20% of total carbohydrates and 10% of total calories are coming from corn syrup.

Diabetes a deadly side effect

An estimated 16 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, the sixth leading cause of death overall. And many studies have linked a high intake of refined carbohydrates and other foods with a high glycemic index with the development of diabetes.

Foods with a high glycemic index cause a spike in insulin production. Many experts agree that, over time, repeatedly eating foods in this pattern can cause insulin resistance, which in turn leads to diabetes.

The bottom line

In the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists used data from the US Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to show that people have eaten about the same amount of carbohydrates a day on average—500 grams—since 1909. But instead of whole grains and vegetables, people are getting more and more of those carbohydrates in the form of processed grains and sugars—most of all, from HFCS.

The researchers also found that starting in 1980 people started consuming steadily more calories, with an average increase in total calories of 500 calories a day. Specifically, 428 calories (nearly 80% of the increase in total energy) came from carbohydrates. The scientists stressed that people are probably not eating all of those 500 calories—some are wasted—but the trend is clear. During the same period, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes increased by 47% and the prevalence of obesity increased by 80%.


1. L. S Gross, Ford, E.S., Li, L., Liu, S., “Increased Consumption of Refined Carbohydrates and the Epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes in the United States: An Ecologic Assessment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004: 79: 774-779.