A ‘study’ in how sugar cubes came to erroneously stand for HFCS

Posted by
August 19, 2014

Does this look like HFCS to you?By BILL BONVIE

How does misinformation – such as the idea that sugar cubes can be used to represent the amount of sugar in a product that doesn’t actually contain any – come into being, and then come to be unquestionably accepted by media?

We got a better idea when we started looking into the origins of a well-intentioned study done by a University of Alabama research team, which ended up being featured in a food-related publication and then became the subject of a lead story on a widely read and supposedly authoritative food website.

The premise of this particular study was that if consumers were only given nutrition information in a form that’s “easier to understand,” it would help empower them to make “healthful, wise consumption decisions.”

Specifically, the researchers set out to demonstrate that using sugar cube graphics to provide a “concrete image” of the amount of sugar contained in “sugar-sweetened drinks” is an effective way of educating people about why they might want to steer clear of such beverages, and is a form of ‘better nutritional labeling.”

There’s just one problem with this premise: nearly all of the beverages they’re talking about are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, a substance that is decidedly not sugar (that is to say, sucrose, which is the technical name for what we commonly refer to as “sugar”).

If there was any blurring of the distinction between HFCS and sugar, it was erased last year by the Food and Drug Administration when it turned down an attempt by the Corn Refiners Association to have HFCS officially renamed “corn sugar.”  On reason for the rejection, the FDA noted, was that sugar is defined as “a solid, dried, and crystallized food; whereas syrup is an aqueous solution or liquid food.” (A second reason was that “corn sugar” is another name for dextrose, a product that contains no fructose.)

For anyone unaware of the distinction, however, confusion is understandable, since the FDA also refers to all types of caloric sweeteners as “added sugars.” And as we discovered, the research team that conducted this study seems to have been laboring under just such a misapprehension when it did several “experiments” to determine whether consumers were influenced by graphic images of the amounts of “sugar” in what they were drinking.

Apparently (and erroneously) assuming that HFCS and sugar were essentially (if not exactly) identical, it found those consumers “were poorer at converting abstract amounts of sugar (grams of sugar) – the type of sugar information that is traditionally presented on SSB (sugar-sweetened beverage) nutrition labels – into concrete representations when they did not receive education (1 sugar cube + 2.5 g).” However, when presented with “concrete (vs. abstract) sugar nutrition information,” consumers selected (supposedly) sugar-sweetened beverages “less frequently.”

A surprising admission

Such conclusions, especially coming from an academically based research team, certainly sound as though they have the ring of authority. In any event, they were convincing enough to be published in Appetite, which describes itself as “an international research journal specializing in behavioral nutrition and the cultural, sensory, and physiological influences on choices and intakes of foods and drinks.” And from there, they were picked up by the website Food Navigator, whose article on this study was headlined “sugary drinks are less appealing with images of sugar cube content” and ran under “Science and Nutrition.”

But this particular study was actually neither, having derived from a flawed basic premise – the origin of which became a bit clearer in an exchange of e-mails I had with its lead author, a third-year graduate student named John Milton Adams.

I was, in fact, a bit taken aback at just how forthright Adams was in answering the questions I put to him. For instance, he acknowledged that he “was unaware that the FDA ruled that HFCS and sugar are not the same thing” and that “sugar” and “sugars,” in FDA parlance, have different meanings as well.

Adams also noted that his expertise is in social psychology, not nutrition. And that his faculty adviser has a Ph.D. in social psychology.

“We are aware that sugar cubes and HFCS are not exactly the same thing, but most people aren’t familiar with consuming raw HFCS (compared to sugar cubes),” he added.

True enough. HFCS isn’t something most people have a mental picture of, because it’s purely an industrial sweetener that’s never been sold to retail customers. And Adams’equating of sugar with HFCS is something that’s been done all too often by politicians, media and sometimes even researchers who should know better.

And, certainly, the aim of the study he and his team undertook — to find a better way to discourage the consumption of HFCS-laden drinks (mistakenly referred to as “sugary drinks”) — is well intentioned. (Such beverages, according to recent polling information, are now being avoided by nearly two-thirds of Americans.)

But the differences between sugar and HFCS go much deeper than a definition. Despite the CRA’s claims that is has a fructose/glucose ratio similar to sugar, it’s been shown to have considerably more fructose – fructose that isn’t bonded to glucose, like it is in sugar, and can thus have adverse effects on health that natural sugar doesn’t.

Perhaps a far better way to persuade people to shun soft drinks and other unhealthy beverages, would be to simply acquaint them with how scientific studies have linked HFCS to obesity and diabetes (which weren’t “epidemic” until it started being widely used in products as a sugar substitute), as well as other afflictions like pancreatic cancer.

Maybe that would prove a lot more effective than showing them misleading pictures of sugar cubes.