Ingredients giant Archer Daniels Midland has criticised media reports linking the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) with the rise in US obesity levels, saying it is not the sole cause of the epidemic.
HFCS, which is commonly used in soft drinks and processed foods, is highly refined, with low impurities or contaminants, said to ADM executive vice-president, commercial and production, John Rice. Speaking at an industry conference last week, he stressed its stability at a variety of temperatures and at low pH levels - and its preservative-free status. In Rice's view told an industry conference last week that HFCS should not be singled out as the "unique contributor to obesity" and stressed the ingredient's functionality and practicality.
Rice said that media coverage accusing sweeteners of contributing to expanding US waistlines was misleading the public - although he conceded that "factual media coverage on the sweetener is gaining ground". "Made from corn, grown here in America, it's an extremely cost-effective nutritive sweetener. Its excellent fermentability shortens production time. It is convenient to process. It offers low viscosity and good consistency for easy measuring and dispensing".
"The reality is that no single ingredient is to blame for our obesity problem," he said. "ADM has been selling high fructose corn syrup since the 1970s, but obesity levels have only been rising dramatically since the early 1990s." He added that obesity was also a worldwide problem, and that HFCS represented less than 10 per cent of sweetener use worldwide.
But Rice stressed that there was a wealth of scientific studies to back up his claims. He mentioned, for instance, the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy, which found that HFCS does not appear to contribute to obesity any differently than do other energy sources.
The complexity of the obesity debate - and the perils surrounding the singling out of any particular cause - were highlighted in a report from the UK last week which suggested that cutting the levels of salt in processed foods could lead to lower obesity levels. "If children aged four to 18 years cut their salt intake by half (i.e., an average reduction of three grams a day), there would be a decrease of approximately two sugar-sweetened soft drinks per week per child, so each child would decrease calorie intake by almost 250 kcal per week," said Feng He, lead author of the study, published in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.
"Not only would reducing salt intake lower blood pressure in children, but it could also play a role in helping to reduce obesity." Obesity is currently thought to affect more than 64 per cent of the US's adult population, and 16 per cent of children, and has been repeatedly linked with an increased risk of other health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), responding to the study, told FoodNavigator.com that it did not "take into account that 61 per cent of all soft drinks are now low calorie or no added sugar and that a number of studies have shown no direct link between obesity and soft drinks consumption".
This reminder that all sodas are not created equal seems the be the kind of thing that Rice believes continues to muddy the waters over soft drinks and obesity, and why the industry needs to remain "vigilant" about the need to spread the (true) word about sweeteners.