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The Truth About Sugar & Sweeteners

Although experts generally agree that all types of sugar are unhealthy in excess, no independent research indicates whether high-fructose corn syrup or sugar is worse, or whether artificial sweeteners are any better.

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When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in May 2012 his proposal for the first citywide ban in the United States on the sale of sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and other public facilities, it was yet another salvo in the ongoing debate over the health effects of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and artificial sweeteners.

Bloomberg’s proposal came after Harvard researchers released in March 2012 their findings that men who drink one sugar- or HFCS-sweetened beverage per day had a 20 percent increased risk of heart disease regardless of their age, diet, family history or alcohol/tobacco use. The Harvard results were announced 1 month after four doctors published an editorial in the science journal Nature that called for all types of sugar and HFCS to be regulated the way that alcohol or tobacco is, due to the connection between sugar and HFCS to obesity and other health problems.

We spoke with 10 independent health experts, and they all agreed with the preponderance of scientific evidence that any sugar and HFCS is bad for you. But they also agreed that it isn’t easy to avoid sugars or sweeteners, or even to wean yourself off them, because 80 percent of the 600,000 items that are in U.S. grocery aisles contain some form of added sugar or sweetener.

Furthermore, no one can agree which artificial sweeteners are better—or if any are beneficial at all. Depending on with whom you speak, virtually all types of sugars and sweeteners either are praised or linked to some sort of chronic condition. We found no independent research that proves that any of them are healthy, unhealthy or even moderately safe in a specific amount. Aside from the old saw against excess, finding any advice adds up to a pile of crystal confusion.

SICKENINGLY SWEET? Of all of the types of sugar and sweeteners that are on the market, HFCS and its trade group, Corn Refiners Association (CRA), certainly received the most sour publicity in the past 5 years. HFCS has been linked to diabetes, liver damage, obesity and heart problems. A 2009 report by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which promotes sustainable food systems, found that some beverages and food that contained HFCS also included detectable levels of mercury.

The latest data that we found indicates that as a result of the negative publicity, sales of HFCS to manufacturers fell by 9 percent in 2009 from 2007, according to Credit Suisse, which is a research-analysis company. ConAgra, Gatorade, Nabisco and Pizza Hut are just a few of the companies that since replaced HFCS with sugar in some of their products. (ConAgra reintroduced a Hunt’s ketchup that has HFCS in 2012 after the demand for its HFCS-free version wasn’t as high as it had expected.)

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CRA launched a $30 million damage-control campaign in 2008. In an attempt to salvage HFCS’s image, CRA petitioned Food and Drug Administration in 2010 for permission to label its products “corn sugar.” FDA ruled against the petition in May 2012, saying the name change could mislead people who can’t tolerate fructose and that the term “corn sugar” has been used to describe dextrose for at least 30 years.

Still, the experts with whom we spoke say just because HFCS might be bad for you doesn’t mean that plain sugar is any better. Marion Nestle, who is a professor in nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, concurs with many who say that too much of any type of sugar is a bad thing.

“Sugars of any type have calories and are best consumed in small amounts,” she tells us.

ARTIFICIAL OR ARTIFICE? If diets that are high in HFCS and sugar can lead to diabetes, heart disease and obesity, then it makes sense to consume artificial and natural sweeteners, such as the ones that are found in noncaloric diet sodas, right? Not so fast.

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