Rethinking Healthcare

Cancer finding may make corn syrup the new tobacco

Cancer finding may make corn syrup the new tobacco

Posting in Cancer

The scrutiny over high fructose corn syrup will only increase with a new Cancer Research article, written by UCLA scientists, linking fructose to cancer.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a corn-based sweetener developed in 1957 and engineered into a wide range of food starting in 1975, looks headed to becoming a major health concern of this generation.

In the process Archer Daniels-Midland may become a one-company "big tobacco."

ADM is not the only HFCS producer, just the largest and best-known. Overall HFCS production has fallen 13% from 2001.

ADM led the push for HFCS in food during the 1970s, and by the mid-90s had one-third of the market. The company helped it replace cane sugar in soda, becoming a major political player. It's also a major advocate for ethanol, also produced from corn. (ADM logo from Wikipedia.)

There has been occasional pushback, mostly over foreign policy (ADM gives to both sides and is often most generous to Democrats) but in recent years it is dietary science that has become the focus of criticism.

The initial charge against ADM was that it was promoting obesity, since HFCS dominates the U.S. market for soda sweeteners. It's not just the "soda tax." It's also the willingness of policy makers to let poor people buy soda with what used to be called food stamps. Critics call it a $4 billion subsidy.

Consumer Reports wants less sugar put in sodas, and the Obama Administration claims the removal of sweetened soda from schools as a major victory in its Let's Move campaign.

It's not just obesity per se that's trouble for corn syrup.

Since 2004 there have been studies linking HFCS to diabetes. A later Yale study charged diets high in HFCS led to resistance to insulin. Despite sizable industry pushback, many scientists now see a link between HFCS and diabetes.

Thus ADM and HFCS have now become a bete noire for liberal columnists, who hint darkly about the industry killing us, much as conservative pundits have gotten on the company for allegedly trying to bail out Fidel Castro. Other conservatives call the company an example of corporate welfare.

The scrutiny, and intensity, is only going to ratchet up with a new Cancer Research article, written by UCLA scientists, linking fructose to cancer. The study was immediately criticized by the industry's Sweetsurprise Web site, but study author Anthony Heaney was adamant to CBS, saying fructose speeds the growth of cancer cells.

"I think this paper has a lot of public health implications," Heaney told CBS. "Hopefully, at the federal level there will be some effort to step back on the amount of HFCS in our diets." That's as close as most scientists come to jumping up-and-down, demanding government action based on their work.

Politically, a perfect storm is brewing. Both sides of the aisle are attacking HFCS, dietary science is piling on. ADM's political contributions have fallen dramatically this decade, but those of rival HFCS producer Cargill have increased.

If ADM's politicking picks up again suddenly you are nearly certain to hear about it, as the political wagons circle, spurred on by dietary science, around HFCS.

UPDATE: BoingBoing is currently featuring a post fisking Heaney's conclusions, calling them overly broad. Cancer cells will grow in any sugar solution, and there is no smoking gun.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure