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Finger points to corn syrup in obesity epidemic


International Congress on Obesity August 29 2002

One clue to the explosion of obesity may be the use of corn syrups to sweeten popular soda drinks and many other foods, a leading expert warned today.

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Prof George Bray, one of the most eminent and highly respected figures in the field of obesity science, said the rise in the use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in foods and particularly soda drinks coincided with the increasing levels of obesity in the United States.

"It is a carbohydrate fat equivalent - that’s how I look at it. I’m really focusing on the beverage side of this issue," he said during a media briefing at the International Congress on Obesity in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"If you look at the decreasing milk consumption that takes calcium out which is one factor and the increasing soft drink consumption and the rise in high fructose corn syrup on top of the epidemic, I think it is playing a role," said Prof Bray, former executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.

The product, made by converting corn starch, is used as a cheap sugar substitute. Prof Bray explained that fructose bypasses the human metabolism’s normal energy burning responses and is more readily converted into fat. In addition the use of fructose and other sugars to sweeten foods meant that fat in the diet was more likely to be stored rather than burned. Fructose gets into cells without triggering an insulin response and can form the backbone for fat molecules more readily.

He revealed that he pinpointed the connection during recent research when he traced the growth in consumption of the food additive using United States Department of Agriculture data, which disclosed surprising consumption patterns.

When the sugar replacement was introduced in the early 70s per capita consumption was less than one pound per year. By the mid 90s the HFCS consumption of the average American had risen to nearly 60 pounds a year. Often described as a "revolution in food science", HFCS is popular with processed food manufacturers because it has high sweetness, improves texture but is much cheaper than sugar and corn syrup blends.

Obesity in the USA rose from 10-15% in the late 70s to at least 26% according to recent official data, but as high as 40% in some groups. Childhood obesity has also risen dramatically over the same period.

Prof Bray outlined the "Fructose Hypothesis" to experts in a lecture entitled "Diobesity - a ticking bomb". He issued his alert at the same time as he warned of the huge public health threat of obesity-induced diabetes.

"Diabetes is a scourge and a world-wide epidemic. At least 80% of patients with type 2 diabetes are overweight and the combination of obesity and diabetes increases the risk of morbidity and mortality. We eat too much and we exercise too little," he said.

He outlined a number of additional factors that could be working independently to drive the obesity epidemic including poor maternal nutrition during the early stages of pregnancy, maternal smoking, gestational diabetes, insufficient calcium intake.

He compared the public health approach needed to deal with the obesity epidemic to the strategies adopted by many governments to deal with dental health. "You can tell everyone to brush and floss their teeth always or you can put fluoride in the water. Putting fluoride in the water is something people don’t have to think about." Changing the "fructose factor" in food might be one strategy that could benefit millions of people.

But he said his message was serious and rising levels of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes meant huge numbers of teenagers would be forced to undergo renal dialysis for kidney disease, suffer blindness, heart disease and early death in their 30s because of their obesity-related diabetes.

For further information contact:

Neville J Rigby
Director of Policy and Public Affairs
IASO International Obesity TaskForce
Hotel Gloria, Rio de Janeiro
552125557272 room 904
Mobile 55 (0) 21 9208003

Neville Rigby | IASO

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