Last month the advocacy group Citizens for Health sent a petition to the FDA asking that the agency require disclosure of fructose levels in food, much in the same way that labels must list trans fats. The group describes itself as “passionately committed to unfettered citizen-consumer access to natural health choices” but acknowledges receiving funding from the sugar industry and other business groups. The Corn Refiners Association has called the petition a “scare tactic” and “the latest unfounded attack on high-fructose corn syrup” by a group with questionable motives.
Some researchers studying the possible adverse effects of fructose support labeling, saying it’s a concern that people consuming high-fructose corn syrup don’t know how much fructose they are ingesting.
“HFCS may contain variable amounts, which is one of the reasons fructose levels should be on the label,” said Kimber Stanhope, a nutritional biologist in the molecular biosciences department at the University of California at Davis who studies fructose and metabolism.
Pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California at San Francisco said he has equal disdain for table sugar and for standard high-fructose corn syrup at 55 percent fructose, but “higher percentages of fructose would be more damaging” to the body, he said.
Lustig said he thinks labeling would be useful but should be accompanied by public education about fructose.
“Much of the public still thinks that a calorie is a calorie, sugar is sugar and all sugars are the same,” he said. “They don’t even understand that sugar is anything more than empty calories.”
Dr. John Bantle, a professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology and diabetes at the University of Minnesota Medical School, will co-chair a panel at the National Institutes of Health conference but is not convinced that fructose is less healthful than other sugars.
“There’s so much concern, and people wonder if fructose is driving these negative health effects and the obesity epidemic,” Bantle said. “I think the answer is probably ‘yes,’ but so is pizza and other cheap food that tastes good.”
Bantle said he thinks using higher fructose blends to reduce the number of calories in pancake syrup and other products can be beneficial in moderation.
But Jim Turner, one of the Citizens For Health lawyers who filed the FDA petition, thinks such products are dangerous when consumers don’t know how much fructose they contain.
Without labeling, “people who are trying to take care of their health or help their kids could end up with higher fructose consumption levels that may have fewer calories but could end up damaging their liver,” he said.
One of the most vocal critics of the recent anti-fructose wave is John Sievenpiper, a nutritional sciences researcher at the University of Toronto. His meta-analyses of short-term studies on the effects of different sugars and carbohydrates on body weight, blood pressure and uric acid found no unique harm from fructose when calories remained the same.
When fructose is added to a controlled diet — something like adding a big sweet drink to one’s regular meal — “there is a strong and reproducible effect on body weight” and other negative outcomes, he said. But Sievenpiper attributes that to the added calories.
Numerous public health campaigns have aimed to reduce public consumption of sugary beverages, but Sievenpiper said he believes a focus on soft drinks misses the point.
“Going after this one ingredient has distracted us from the major issue, which is overconsumption,” said Sievenpiper, who acknowledges accepting several grants from Coca-Cola Co. and least one from Archer Daniels Midland. “We eat too much of everything, including fructose. The fact is we are eating too much in general.”