Starbucks announced that it will make a major change in its baked goods by the end of the month, removing high fructose corn syrup as part of a switch to “real” food. But before you gag on your blueberry scone, consider this: High fructose corn syrup, despite all the media hype, is nutritionally the same as the table sugar that people add to their coffee.
“High fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food supply,” said Harvard’s David Ludwig on NBC Nightly News recently. That’s because sugar is sugar, whether it’s made from beets, cane, or corn. They’re nearly identical in molecular composition, and exactly equal in sweetness and calorie content.
Yet crafty marketers have been perpetuating the myth that some sweeteners are healthier than others. How do they pull it off?
In part by confusing pure fructose with high fructose corn syrup. Table sugar is made of a half-and-half recipe of fructose and glucose. High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, contains either 42 or 55 percent fructose. The rest, as with table sugar, is plain old glucose. So despite having “high fructose” in its name, HFCS has roughly the same amount of fructose as table sugar.
But with all the scientific names, it’s easy for consumers to get confused. A study in April from the University of California-Davis, for example, demonized fructose as unsafe to consume in large (read: abnormal) quantities.
Putting aside the fact that consuming anything in absurd quantities is likely to have some bad effects, this fructose study didn’t even deal with HFCS. It focused on pure fructose, which we don’t find in the human diet anyway. As biochemist Dr. John S. White concluded, the UC-Davis study “did not test high-fructose corn syrup … and judgments should not be made about it from the findings.”
The reality is this: The Food and Drug Administration puts HFCS in the category of ingredients that are “generally recognized as safe.”
The agency also classifies HFCS as “natural.”
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that HFCS affects the body no differently than a wholesome glass of milk. And this past summer, the American Medical Association issued a report stating that “it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose [table sugar].”
That’s because these sweeteners are all nutritionally equivalent. Your body can hardly tell them apart.
Another set of five research papers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirmed that the No-HFCS doctrine is groundless. As USA TODAY reported, the studies found “no special link between consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.” As one researcher put it, “sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are not that different.”
Leading nutrition experts at the American Dietetic Association denounce the “good” food, “bad” food campaigns backed by pseudo-science. (The ADA recommends that we focus on the amount, rather than the type of foods consumed.) Consuming HFCS, sugar, or other sweeteners in moderation is the key to a healthy diet.
Smart marketing doesn’t change the facts. You won’t be any healthier switching from high fructose corn syrup to table sugar-no matter what kind of sweet nothings your local barista whispers in your ear.
Instead of promoting a “Real Food” marketing gimmick, Starbucks executives might try reading some of the real science. If they keep basing culinary decisions on fad diet myths, the carbs in their bagels could disappear next. To say nothing of the caffeine in all that java.
J. Justin Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.