Have you seen these really awkward commercials from the Corn Refiners Association? (Here are two more.) The group is trying to fight the bad rap that high fructose corn syrup–which provides almost 7 percent of daily caloric consumption in the US–has been getting from foodies. And now, scientists are getting in on the action.
A group of Princeton scientists recently came out with a study that concluded that consuming high fructose corn syrup led to higher weight gain than consuming regular sugar. According to a news release, rats who consumed high fructose corn syrup over a long period of time became well, obese.
“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the conditions of our tests,” said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction. “When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”
But the study has attracted criticism for its methods.
Obviously, the Corn Refiners’ Association immediately fired back with a press release on the safety of high fructose corn syrup, saying that the researchers failed to put controls on sucrose consumption and that the rats were consuming the equivalent of 3,000 kcal per day–an unrealistic amount (or are we underestimating America?). But their argument is one that we’ve made before: Rats. Are not people.
“Consumers should not be misled by exaggerated studies that feed astronomical amounts of one ingredient to the study subjects, in this case rats. The medical community has long dismissed results from rat dietary studies as being inapplicable to human beings,” stated Audrae Erickson, president, Corn Refiners Association.
Karen Kaplan from the Los Angeles Times posted a breakdown of the study on the LA Times’ health blog. The rats were split into three groups: one with access to sugar solution for 12 hours a day, one with access to high fructose corn syrup for 12 hours a day, and one with access to high fructose corn syrup 24 hours a day.
After eight weeks, three groups of rats weighed essentially the same – the chow-only rats (462 grams on average), the 24-hour HFCS rats (470 grams) and the sugar-water rats (477 grams). But the rats that were able to drink the HFCS solution for 12 hours each day weighed in at an average of 502 grams, a difference that was deemed statistically significant.
How could this be? It wasn’t simply the calories in high-fructose corn syrup. The fat rats drank 21.3 calories’ worth of the sweetener each day, only slightly more than the 20.1 calories sipped by rats with 24-hour access to the HFCS solution. What’s more, the rats that were offered sugar water consumed 31.3 calories worth of sweetener each day.
NYU food studies professor Marion Nestle also called out “this rat study” on being inaccurate, adding that caloric intake is notoriously difficult to measure for rats. Not only are the results from the rats with 12 and 24-hour access to high fructose corn syrup inconsistent, she writes, but some results aren’t actually statistically significant, and one experiment lacked controls to measure high fructose corn syrup against regular sugar.
And then finally, some perspective:
“The debate about which one [high fructose corn syrup or sugar] is better for you is a false debate, because neither of them is good for you,” says Elizabeth Abbott, author of the forthcoming “Sugar: A Bittersweet History.” (CNN)