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Soft Drink Sweetener Blamed for Obesity

Nutritionists Say High Fructose Corn Syrup Linked to Extra Calories
WebMD Health News

April 1, 2004 -- Super-sized servings of burgers and fries head the list of foods being blamed for America's obesity epidemic, but that extra-large soda you drink to wash it all down may be even more to blame, several nutrition researchers charge.

They say it is no accident that the rise in obesity in the U.S. has paralleled the increase in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener now found in almost all sugar-based soft drinks and sweetened fruit juices. Between 1970 and 1990, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption increased by more than 1,000%, largely because the nation's soft drink manufacturers switched from sucrose to HFCS, obesity researcher George A Bray, MD, tells WebMD. The researchers say that this increase far exceeds the intake of other foods or food groups.

"Clearly there is no one food that is responsible for the rise in obesity, but we believe that the increased consumption of soft drinks and other beverages sweetened with HFCS may play a significant role," he says. "If I could do one thing to change the food supply, it would be to eliminate all caloric sweeteners from the beverages we drink."

Empty Calories

Obesity has more than doubled in the U.S. from 1960 to 2000, with much of the increase occurring within the latter two decades, according to government figures. In the last decade, the percentage of adults 20 years and older that are classified as obese or overweight increased to 55%. An estimated 97 million adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

In an effort to identify dietary trends, Bray and colleagues examined food and beverage consumption records from the Department of Agriculture for the period between 1967 and 2000. They estimated that Americans eat 132 calories each day of high fructose corn syrup, and that the figure is closer to 300 calories for the top 20% of Americans.

Nutrition researcher Barry M. Popkin tells WebMD that Americans are eating between 200 and 300 more calories per capita per day than they were three decades ago. He says between one-third and one-half of those calories come from soft drinks. Popkin co-authored the commentary, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Soda Advocates Respond

HFCS is sweeter than most other caloric sweeteners like sucrose, found in table sugar, and Bray and Popkin contend that the added sweetness may actually stimulate the appetite rather than sating it. But while HFCS is used to sweeten some cereals and other processed foods, Bray says he believes HFCS-sweetened beverages, not foods, are causing Americans to consume more calories.

"We are focusing on beverages because the data we have suggest that non-beverage products sweetened with HFCS don't seem to have the same impact as beverages," he says.

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