D.I.Y. sweetener used in new study adds to sugar, HFCS confusion

Posted by
August 22, 2013

University of Utah biology professor Wayne Potts, right, and former Ph.D. student James Ruff, left, set up one of the “mouse barns” used in their new study. Photo: Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

A new study published last week about mice and sweeteners has resulted in some really big headlines that have continued to compound consumer confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sugar.

The study, by a research team out of the The University of Utah published in the journal Nature Communications, came to some alarming conclusions – that (according to the university press release) “Sugar is toxic to mice in ‘safe’ doses,” and  “new test hints three sodas daily hurt lifespan, reproduction.” The media took it from there, further blurring the distinction between natural sugar (sucrose) and the man-made invention know as high fructose corn syrup.

The research involved caged groups of “house mice,” some fed a diet that replaced part of their calories with 25 percent added sweeteners (more on that in a minute) and others fed exactly the same number of calories but without the sweet substitution. After 26 weeks, all of the mice were placed in “mouse barns” a more realistic setting than cages, which allowed for observation of their ability to survive, claim “territory,” and breed, for another 32 weeks (during which time all the mice were fed the added-sweetener diet).

Food Identity Theft spoke with the study’s lead author, University of Utah Biology Professor Wayne Potts about the results, and especially about what sweetener it was the test group, and later the entire group of mice were fed.

Potts said his study, titled “Human-relevant levels of added sugar consumption increase female mortality and lower male fitness in mice,” didn’t actually use sugar, but rather a third-party made sweetener that more “closely mimicked HFCS, being roughly a 50/50 mixture of glucose and fructose monosaccharides” that’s “very similar (to HFCS).” As we’ve often noted here, however, HFCS is typically more than 50 percent fructose, and in some cases, much more – as high as 90 percent (which is why Citizens for Health has filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration seeking to have the actual HFCS-fructose amount listed on product labels).

A ‘broad term’ gets even broader

The University Press Office was even a bit more lax about using the terms “sugar,” and “added-sugar diet” in its press release. When asked about the release headline, “Sugar is toxic to mice in ‘safe’ doses,” the communications specialist said, “I think the glucose/fructose mix is just ‘sugar,’” and then that she would check to “make sure that’s okay,” adding “I’m thinking that sugar is just a broad term…they referenced it as ‘sugar’ in the study, but they didn’t give them white crystals.”

Certainly Professor Potts and the University of Utah are not the first to make sugar “a broad term.” The
confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup and real sugar has traveled far and wide, possibly originating with none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which refers to the expression “sugary drinks” (which are most likely ones that contain high fructose corn syrup) as a “consumer-tested message.”

In past interviews, John S. Webster, director of Public and Governmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, told us that “the term ‘sugary drinks’ is not a defined term.” It was chosen to “convey the idea” of drinks that contain “added sugars” – meaning any beverage sweetened with ingredients listed in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes honey, molasses, corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup, for example,” he said.

So muddled is the media on this issue, in fact, that a report on the study from msnNOW states that “unsurprisingly, the sugar industry isn’t buying it,” then goes on to quote a response from the Corn Refiners Association, which represents the manufacturers of HFCS.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to know the actual substance in question when I hear about a study in which the female mice “died at twice the normal rate” and males “were a quarter less likely to reproduce,” and both sexes generally “lose about 30 percent of their health and reproduction.”

Potts current research, however, should be a bit more exacting in terms of what sweeteners are being studied, as it’s a side-by-side comparison between actual sugar and high fructose corn syrup, something “the toxicologists were most interested in (doing),” Potts said.

But despite being continually confused with “sugar” by politicians, the media and even  researchers, it’s become increasingly clear that the public has a growing distaste for HFCS and doesn’t need further research to be convinced that this unnatural sweetener has no place in a healthy diet.