Corn syrup is blamed for the rise in obesity and related diseases
Richard Nixon is remembered for his infamous part in the Watergate scandal, but his lasting legacy may be a burgeoning army of people in the West who are too fat.
In the 1970s, Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary, Earl Butz, realised that farmers were harvesting more corn than they knew what to do with thanks to more efficient, industrialised methods. His answer was to champion increased production and use of high-fructose corn syrup, which has undergone enzymatic processing to convert some glucose into fructose. The fructose-rich sweetener – now nicknamed “devil’s candy” in the US – was cheaper and sweeter than sugar. By the 1980s, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), called glucose-fructose syrup in the UK, was the favourite substitute for sugar worldwide, finds a new BBC series, The Men Who Made Us Fat, starting this week.
A growing body of research suggests that fructose, contained in both glucose-fructose syrup and table sugar, has strong links to obesity, as it suppresses the action of the hormone leptin, which tells the body that the stomach is full. The endocrinologist Robert Lustig told the BBC: “Leptin goes from your fat cells to your brain and tells your brain you’ve had enough.” But when the liver is overloaded with sugar, leptin stops working. “It makes your brain think you’re starving and now what you have is a vicious cycle of consumption, disease and addiction.”
Dr Jean-Marc Schwarz, a food scientist at San Francisco General Hospital, said: “Some sugar will be converted to fat, and fructose is one sugar that can be easily converted to fat. It’s not comparable to lead or mercury: it’s the quantity that makes it toxic.”