Tagged Corn Syrup and Sweeteners

How the Government Supports Your Junk Food Habit

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Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

At a time when almost three-quarters of the country is overweight or obese, it comes as no surprise that junk foods are the largest source of calories in the American diet. Topping the list are grain-based desserts like cookies, doughnuts and granola bars. (Yes, granola bars are dessert.)

That’s according to data from the federal government, which says that breads, sugary drinks, pizza, pasta dishes and “dairy desserts” like ice cream are also among Americans’ top 10 sources of calories.

What do these foods have in common? They are largely the products of seven crops and farm foods — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk and meat — that are heavily subsidized by the federal government, ensuring that junk foods are cheap and plentiful, experts say.

Between 1995 and 2010, the government doled out $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to finance the production of these foods, the latter two in part through subsidies on feed grains. While many of these foods are not inherently unhealthy, only a small percentage of them are eaten as is. Most are used as feed for livestock, turned into biofuels or converted to cheap products and additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates.

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Health advocates have long pointed out this seeming contradiction. While the federal government recommends that people fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables to help prevent obesity, only a small fraction of its subsidies actually support the production of fresh produce. The vast majority of agricultural subsidies go instead to commodity crops that are processed into many of the foods that are linked to the obesity crisis.

“The subsidies damage our country’s health and increase the medical costs that will ultimately need to be paid to treat the effects of the obesity epidemic,” a 2012 report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, concluded. “Taxpayers are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.”

Now federal health researchers have examined the relationship between metabolic disease and the consumption of federally subsidized foods.

The study, led by a team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at over 10,000 adults and the foods they reported eating in a typical day. Then the researchers split the subjects into groups according to the proportion of foods they ate that were derived from the seven major subsidized commodities.

After adjusting for age, sex, socioeconomic factors and other variables, the researchers found that those who had the highest consumption of federally subsidized foods had a 37 percent greater risk of being obese. They were also significantly more likely to have belly fat, abnormal cholesterol, and high levels of blood sugar and CRP, a marker of inflammation.

While the study does not prove cause and effect, its authors say that this strong association is consistent with other research showing that diets that are higher in subsidized foods tend to be poorer quality and more harmful to health.

“This tells us that the factors that influence the prices of our foods are an additional factor,” said Ed Gregg, chief of the epidemiology and statistics branch in the C.D.C.’s Division of Diabetes Translation. “We’re hoping that this information reaches policy makers and the people who influence how subsidies work.”

The subsidies program was started decades ago in part to support struggling farmers and to secure America’s food supply. Since 1995, the government has provided farmers with close to $300 billion in agricultural subsidies overall, which are included in the federal farm bill, along with money for nutrition initiatives like the federal food stamps program, known as SNAP. The farm bill is renewed by Congress every five years and is projected to cost $956 billion between 2014 and 2023.

But critics say the subsidies program no longer serves its original purpose. Instead of supporting small farmers who grow fruits, nuts and vegetables – which the government calls “specialty crops” — the program now primarily subsidizes large producers that churn out a handful of “commodity” crops that include grains, corn, sorghum and oilseeds like soybeans.

According to the Government Accountability Office, small “specialty” farms represent three-quarters of the country’s cropland but receive just 14 percent of government subsidies. Large agribusinesses that specialize in growing the major commodity crops represent 7 percent of the cropland and receive about half of all subsidies.

Previous versions of the farm bill even stipulated that farmers who took subsidies for commodity crops could not grow fruits and vegetables. If they did, they were penalized, said Caroline Franck, the co-author of a 2012 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that explored the role of agricultural subsidies in obesity.

Ms. Franck, a research assistant at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research of the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University, said many factors influence what people choose to eat. While it’s difficult to argue that subsidies are a direct cause of obesity, they clearly play a role.

“I think it’s safe to say that what happens at the top of the food chain has an impact on what happens at the bottom,” she said. “Agricultural policies are just not aligned with public health goals.”

In part because of public pressure, the last farm bill, which was passed in 2014, allowed farmers who grow commodity crops to use 15 percent of their acreage to grow fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. It provided support to organic farmers, including $100 million for research to improve organic production. And it funded a “healthy incentives” program that encourages food stamp recipients to consume more fruits and vegetables by increasing the value of food stamps that are used to buy fresh produce at retail stores or farmers’ markets.

Ms. Franck said that early results suggest that the program is increasing the amount of fresh produce people consume. But others are not so sanguine. Raj Patel, a research professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the funding for fruits and vegetables in the most recent farm bill was “crumbs” compared to the billions in subsidies for commodity crops.

Dr. Patel said it was time for the federal government to adopt a “national food policy” like one that has been proposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group. Among other things, a national food policy would ensure that farm workers receive fair wages, that all Americans have access to healthy foods, and that the government’s nutrition recommendations and agricultural policies are aligned, he said.

“It would transition us away from the unhealthy consequences of the current industrial food policy,” he said. “I think there’s something very broken about the subsidy system.”

Is Sugar Really Bad for You? It Depends

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The federal government’s decision to update food labels last month marked a sea change for consumers: For the first time, beginning in 2018, nutrition labels will be required to list a breakdown of both the total sugars and the added sugars in packaged foods. But is sugar really that bad for you? And is the sugar added to foods really more harmful than the sugars found naturally in foods?

We spoke with some top scientists who study sugar and its effects on metabolic health to help answer some common questions about sugar. Here’s what they had to say.

Why are food labels being revised?

The shift came after years of urging by many nutrition experts, who say that excess sugar is a primary cause of obesity and heart disease, the leading killer of Americans. Many in the food industry opposed the emphasis on added sugars, arguing that the focus should be on calories rather than sugar. They say that highlighting added sugar on labels is unscientific, and that the sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables is essentially no different than the sugar commonly added to packaged foods. But scientists say it is not that simple.

So, is added sugar different from the naturally occurring sugar in food?

It depends. Most sugars are essentially combinations of two molecules, glucose and fructose, in different ratios. The sugar in a fresh apple, for instance, is generally the same as the table sugar that might be added to homemade apple pie. Both are known technically as sucrose, and they are broken down in the intestine into glucose and fructose. Glucose can be metabolized by any cell in the body. But fructose is handled almost exclusively by the liver.

“Once you get to that point, the liver doesn’t know whether it came from fruit or not,” said Kimber Stanhope, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who studies the effects of sugar on health.

The type of sugar that is often added to processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup, which is the food industry’s favored sweetener for everything from soft drinks to breads, sauces, snacks and salad dressings. Made commercially from cornstarch, high-fructose corn syrup is generally much cheaper than regular sugar. It contains the same components as table sugar – glucose and fructose – but in slightly different proportions.

What about “natural” sweeteners?

Food companies like to market agave nectar, beet sugar, evaporated cane juice and many other “natural” sweeteners as healthier alternatives to high-fructose corn syrup. But whatever their source, they are all very similar. To suggest one is healthier than another is a stretch, experts say. In fact, last month, the F.D.A. urged food companies to stop using the term evaporated cane juice because it is “false or misleading” and “does not reveal that the ingredient’s basic nature and characterizing properties are those of a sugar.”

Is high-fructose corn syrup worse than regular sugar? How is it different?

High-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar are so similar that most experts say their effects on the body are essentially the same.

The main difference is that the variety of high-fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks tends to have more fructose. In one 2014 study, researchers analyzed more than a dozen popular soft drinks and found that many sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup – including Pepsi, Sprite, Mountain Dew, Coca-Cola and Arizona Iced Tea – contained roughly 40 percent glucose and 60 percent fructose. Regular sugar contains equal parts glucose and fructose.

Why doesn’t the F.D.A. require that added sugars be listed in teaspoons rather than grams?

When the new food labels go into effect, the daily recommended limit for added sugars will be 50 grams, or roughly 12 teaspoons, daily. (One teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams.) But the new food labels will list the amount of added sugars solely in grams.

Many nutrition advocates have urged the F.D.A. to require that food labels list added sugars in both teaspoons and grams on food labels, arguing that Americans often underestimate the actual amount of sugar in a product when it’s expressed in grams alone.

But the F.D.A. ultimately sided with the food industry, which opposed the teaspoon proposal.

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a manufacturer to determine the volume contribution that each ingredient provides toward the added sugars declaration,” the agency said. “For example, a cookie made with white chocolate chips and dried fruit would have added sugars in the form of sugar in the batter as well as in the white chocolate chips and the dried fruit.” The F.D.A. also said that requiring both grams and teaspoons would “cause clutter and make the labels more difficult to read.”

But Michael Jacobson, the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that had petitioned the F.D.A. to require the teaspoon measurement, said the agency was under enormous pressure from the food industry, “which knows that consumers would be far more concerned about a product labeled 10 teaspoons than 42 grams.”

So what’s the issue with added sugars?

It mainly comes down to the way they’re packaged.

Naturally occurring sugar is almost always found in foods that contain fiber, which slows the rate at which the sugar is digested and absorbed. (One exception to that rule is honey, which has no fiber.) Fiber also limits the amount of sugar you can consume in one sitting.

A medium apple contains about 19 grams of sugar and four grams of fiber, or roughly 20 percent of a day’s worth of fiber. Not many people would eat three apples at one time. But plenty of children and adults can drink a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi, which has 55 grams of added sugar – roughly the amount in three medium apples – and no fiber. Fiber not only limits how much you can eat, but how quickly sugar leaves the intestine and reaches the liver, Dr. Stanhope said.

“You can’t easily eat that much sugar from fruit,” she said. “But nobody has any problem consuming a very high level of sugar from a beverage or from brownies and cookies.”

Why is it a problem to have too much sugar?

Many nutrition experts say that sugar in moderation is fine for most people. But in excess it can lead to metabolic problems beyond its effects on weight gain. The reason, studies suggest, is fructose. Any fructose you eat is sent straight to your liver, which specializes in turning it into droplets of fat called triglycerides.

“When you ingest fructose, almost all of it is metabolized by the liver, and the liver is very good at taking that fructose and converting it to fat,” said Dr. Mark Herman, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard. Studies show a predictable response when people are asked to drink a sugary beverage: A rapid spike in the amount of triglycerides circulating in their bloodstreams. This also leads to a reduction in HDL cholesterol, the so-called good kind.

Over time, this combination – higher triglycerides and lower HDL – is one major reason sugar promotes heart disease, said Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist and adviser to the United Kingdom’s national obesity forum. This sequence of events may even overshadow the effects of LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad kind.

“What many people don’t realize is that it’s triglycerides and HDL that are more predictive of cardiovascular disease than LDL cholesterol,” Dr. Malhotra said. “I’m not saying LDL isn’t important. But if there is a hierarchy, triglycerides and HDL are more important than LDL.”

Dr. Malhotra said that when people reduce their sugar intake, “their overall cholesterol profile improves.”

“I see this in so many of my patients,” he added. “The effects are rapid.”

How much sugar is too much?

One of the largest studies of added sugar consumption, which was led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that adults who got more than 15 percent of their daily calories from added sugar had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. For the average adult, that translates to about 300 calories, or 18 teaspoons of added sugar, daily. That may not sound like a lot. But considering that a single 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola has almost 10 teaspoons of sugar, it can add up quickly

The study found that most adults got more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar, and that for 10 percent of people, more than 25 percent of their calories came from added sugar. The biggest sources for adults were soft drinks, fruit juices, desserts and candy.

While those might seem like obvious junk foods, Dr. Malhotra said, about half of the sugar Americans consume is “hidden” in less obvious places like salad dressings, bread, low-fat yogurt and ketchup. In fact, of the 600,000 food items for sale in America, about 80 percent contain added sugar.

Everyone’s tolerance for sugar is different. Studies show, for example, that people who are already obese may be more susceptible to metabolic harm from sugar than others. But Dr. Malhotra said that he generally advises people to follow the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which recommend that adults and children consume no more than about six teaspoons daily of added sugar.

“Could I tell you the exact limit where sugar starts to definitely impact cardiovascular health?” he said. “That’s difficult. But I think if people stick within the W.H.O. limits, then their risk is reduced.”

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