‘Article’ about HFCS reflects industry infiltration of media

Posted by
May 22, 2014



Where do you go when you want well-informed, unbiased information on a particular topic – like, say, the safety of a particular food additive? Would you rely on an industry website or have more confidence in what a credentialed “expert” – that is, a professional dietitian or nutritionist — has to say at the online version of a daily newspaper published by a major news organization?

If you’re after “just the facts,” as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say on the iconic TV police drama, “Dragnet,” you would almost certainly opt for the latter.

But what if the supposed “facts” that appeared under the supposed expert’s byline turned out to be almost identical to the hype found at the industry website?

While the disguising of corporate hype as legitimate information in the media is nothing new, it has reached brazen new levels in reporting on food-related issues. One reason is that far too many registered dietitians and nutritionists are unduly influenced by industry groups and large food corporations that maintain a huge presence at their conferences with booths and seminars. (A recent one in California even had lunch catered by McDonald’s!)

The situation has become so embarrassing to some of the more conscientious members of this group that they’ve rebelled and formed their own group, Dietitians for Professional Integrity, as we reported here more than a year ago.

A current example of how such industry infiltration can result in consumers being misled into accepting corporate propaganda as fact came to our attention when we chanced to read a column posted online by the Gannett newspaper Florida Today. Written by Susie Bond, identified as a registered/licensed dietitian and nutritionist for Health First’s ProHealth & Fitness Centers,  it appeared under the headline “More from Susie: sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup.”

When we first read Bond’s attempts to debunk the “myths” regarding HFCS, we couldn’t help thinking that we’d seen this all somewhere before. And as it turned out, we had – at none other than the “Sweet Surprise” website maintained by the Corn Refiners Association, the trade group that has spent huge amounts of money trying to convince the public that this cheap synthetic sweetener is nothing more than a “natural” form of “sugar made from corn” (and whose attempt to have the product renamed “corn sugar” was rejected last year by the Food and Drug Administration).

That wasn’t the only thing we discovered on revisiting the “Sweet Surprise” site, however.  Because there, in a section labeled “in the News” was – yes, you guessed it – a link to the very same article.

But since the column consisted of only a slightly rewritten restatement of the claims already made at the site, it looks like the only purpose served by that link is to lend more seeming legitimacy to the CRA’s long-held position that HFCS is really no different from natural sugar.   The similarity was so pronounced, in fact, that Bond’s last two “myths” are virtually identical to those listed on the website about  HFCS supposedly being “banned in Europe” and “subsidized by the U.S. government.”  Coincidence?

Ignoring the evidence

To get an idea of how closely her presentation of points matches that made by the corn refiners, you need only read how she attempts to discredit the “myth” that “HFCS causes obesity and diabetes….

Critics say that the use of HFCS in the ‘70s coincided with the increase in obesity and diabetes rates in America. There is no evidence to support this belief. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that consumption of HFCS has been declining, while obesity and diabetes rates continue to climb. Around the world, obesity is increasing even though HFCS consumption is limited outside of the U.S.

…and compare it with the wording you’ll find at the “Sweet Surprise” site:

Myth: High fructose corn syrup is to blame for obesity and diabetes.

Reality: Nope. There is no scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is to blame for obesity and diabetes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that consumption of high fructose corn syrup has actually been declining while obesity and diabetes rates continued to rise. Around the world, obesity levels are also rising even though HFCS consumption is limited outside of the U.S.

What both overlook, of course, is that “scientific evidence” of a link between HFCS and obesity and diabetes does exist. It includes a 2010 Princeton University study in regard to obesity, and another funded by the Center for Advanced Food Technology of Rutgers University, which concluded that soft drinks sweetened with HFCS contributed to the development of diabetes.  There was also the University of Southern California study done last year that showed countries using HFCS had a 20 percent higher diabetes rate than countries that didn’t. (And while it’s true HFCS has recently been removed from some products, it still remains in countless others.)

We were curious to know if Bond was aware of these and other studies when she submitted that column, and so (at her invitation) we emailed her that question and some others about what sources she used and whether she was a paid consultant for the CRA.  As of deadline time, we still hadn’t heard back, and will let you know if we do.

But whether she has some affiliation with the CRA or simply relied on it as her source of information, this unabashed repackaging of industry assertions once again demonstrates that you can’t automatically assume a certified “professional” is giving you sound, unbiased advice – any more than you can believe everything you read in the newspapers (or on the Internet).