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Hot Fads and Boring Facts About Obesity | Commentary

Recently, Rick Tolman, outgoing CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, made news in a CQ Roll Call article by saying high fructose corn syrup, like other sugars, is one contributor to the obesity epidemic. Tolman is right. Excess calories from all types of foods cause obesity, including added sugars such as HFCS.

Responsible members of the food industry are committed to promoting consumer understanding about the foods and beverages they eat. Since 2008, the Corn Refiners Association has dedicated more than $100 million dollars to that effort, consistently promoting moderation in the consumption of all sugars, including HFCS and beet and cane sugar. We have not promoted increased consumption of HFCS or total sugars.

So, why is the corn industry making news? The nutrition information marketplace is noisy and confusing. There is a cacophony of diet book authors, television health news entertainers, celebrity chefs and exercise instructors selling videos, none of whom necessarily have a background in nutrition science. We even have scientific researchers who are trying to make a name for themselves with a shocking new study of 20 rats that have been fed a mountain of something people don’t really eat (aka a study of “low evidentiary value”). Those distractions are all part of a free press.

Members of this year’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee who are eager to develop “bold” recommendations will be tempted to abandon long-standing scientific procedure for evaluating the evidentiary value of studies, instead identifying “emerging themes” as a basis for policy action. The long-standing scientific procedure exists because only policy that is based on credible evidence is likely to prove appropriate. In this area, “wise” would be a better objective than “bold.”

What is far more frustrating is parts of the food industry that disparage alternative products by pedaling theories that they know are not supported by science. Their goal is to distract consumers from the real issues and, thereby, sell more of their product.

America is losing the obesity battle because the mainstream science sounds boring and it is drowned out by what is new and surprising. For decades, nutrition fads have admonished Americans to not eat a particular food or nutrient as if that advice were a panacea. Today’s fads tell us to eat more of what previous fads told us to avoid. Meanwhile, the obesity epidemic has gotten worse. Non evidence-based approaches that single out one particular dietary “evil” have not only failed, they have distracted consumers from the scientific consensus.

Sugars (high fructose corn syrup, beet and cane sugar included) have been targeted as the unique cause of obesity, though the scientific studies of high evidentiary value are contrary to that theory. Obesity is caused by Americans consuming more total calories now than ever before. According to the Department of Agriculture, over the past 40 years our total per capita daily caloric intake increased by 458 calories to 2,534 calories per day. That is the equivalent of an extra meal a day. Of that increase, only 35 calories (7 percent) come from additional sugars. The problem is not simply fats or flour/cereals, which contribute most of the “new” calories. Nor is the problem simply sugars. Instead, the problem is that we are burning fewer calories and consuming more calories overall. We need diets of variety and moderation.

Addressing sound science probably won’t make you the author of a hot new diet book, a shocking new nutritional theory, or a bold new policy. But the sooner we focus on caloric balance, the sooner we can start making progress on America’s leading public health challenge. Please, at least in federal policy, more nutrition science, less nutrition fads.

John Bode is president & CEO of the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the industry whose products include starch, bioproducts, corn oil, feed and sweeteners including high fructose corn syrup.

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