'Fructose-Slurping' Cancer Could Sour the Soda Business

New findings show high-fructose corn syrup may feed cancer cells.Soda and processed-food manufacturers have long insisted that all sugars are essentially the same. Yet, simultaneously they're delicately backing away from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as one study after another links the corn-based sweetener to obesity and diabetes. While the market for HFCS declined by 9% in 2008, says Ken Roseboro of the Organic and Non-GMO Report, it was still used in 55% of all sweetened edibles in 2009.

New findings published this month in the journal Cancer Research by University of California Los Angeles researchers could further sour the public's sentiment toward the super-sweet, super-cheap syrup and reduce its use even further. HFCS is 55% fructose and 42% glucose. The study found that pancreatic tumor cells metabolized fructose differently than glucose and that the cancer cells "readily metabolized fructose to increase proliferation." In other words, as the headline reads, "Cancer cells slurp up fructose."

Lawsuits Are Sure to Follow

This is a direct challenge to the Corn Refiner's Association, which made a splash in 2008 with commercials belittling consumers who disdained
high-fructose corn syrup as self-righteous and incoherent. (The ads inspired a little outrage and a lot of spoofs and rebuttals.) In March 2010, the association put on its website a clip from CBS News calling differences in the chemistry of HFCS and table sugar "an urban myth." And despite the occasional study linking HFCS consumption to obesity, as well as insulin resistance and diabetes, the prevailing sentiment of the food industry was that the difference between HFCS and cane or beet sugar was negligible.

"Fructose is a natural, simple sugar commonly found in a variety of sweeteners, including table sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup, as well as in many fruits, vegetables, and juices," says Audrae Erickson, President of the Corn Refiners Association in a statement. "This study does not look at the way fructose is actually consumed by humans, as it was conducted in a laboratory, not inside the human body. The study also narrowly compared pure fructose to pure glucose, neither of which is consumed in isolation in the human diet."

Despite the Corn Refiner's Association's best efforts, high fructose corn syrup is still being maligned. But it is this latest study linking the sweetener to pancreatic cancer that may be the weapon of choice for eager attorneys in defense of angry consumers. As Frost & Sullivan industry analyst Christopher Shanahan says, laughing, when asked whether there will be lawsuits, "Yes, I'd put money on it."

But as damning as the headlines of this latest study seem to be, other scientists caution that further research needs to be done before people leap to the assumption that fructose helps cancer proliferate. The science blogger known as "Orac" writes that the research is "rather interesting," but far more work should be done before it's seen as proof that HFCS causes pancreatic cancer. "It's far too early to make any sort of recommendations about high fructose corn syrup and diet based on this study," he writes.

In a statement, the American Beverage Association said: "It is important to recognize that this was not a clinical trial performed on humans, but rather a test tube study. In addition, the isolated cancer cells were subjected to extremely high levels of fructose that are unlikely in normal human metabolic processes. In fact, human beings do not typically consume fructose by itself, as it is normally found in combination with glucose in fruits and vegetables, or in the form of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup as found in myriad foods and beverages. The fact remains that no single food or beverage causes cancer, including pancreatic cancer."

Beverage Makers Under the Gun

The beverage companies are the easiest targets in the crusade against HFCS, says Shanahan. For "the corn manufacturers, the sugar manufacturers, the processed-food manufacturers, there is an underlying fear that, in the next 10 years, this is going to be a critical challenge similar to the top-down mandates that impacted the tobacco industry."

He points to a central problem of the U.S. agricultural system: Very few crops -- soy, wheat and especially corn -- account for a huge percentage of the American diet, especially when you consider the soy- and corn-fed livestock and myriad processed foods made from corn derivatives.

"The recent obesity measure, weight issues, diabetes, all can be routed back to the American diet," Shanahan says, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is complicit in the problem, with rich subsidies for wheat, soy and corn, the top recipient. The amount varies widely from year to year, but corn subsidies totaled $73.8 billion from 1995 to 2009. With corn so cheap, there's incentive to put it in more and more foods in place of other, more expensive, ingredients. Now it's in practically every processed food, and lots of nonfoods, too, including ethanol for fuel.

Getting the HFCS Out

Roseboro, of the Organic & Non-GMO Report, says change is coming. Big brands like Hunt's (CAG), Gatorade (PEP) and Starbucks (SBUX) are reformulating some of their products to remove HFCS. "I think the fact that big companies [like Hunt's and Pepsico] are going to stop using it is indication that a trend is going to be that companies will be taking it out, using sugar instead, and the smaller companies will follow along."

Shanahan agrees. "Food manufacturers are starting to diversify their product line to include cane sugar," he says. "The corn refiners are going to stop making corn sweeteners, and make ethanol instead."

It might be longer than he thinks before beverage companies and, most important, government agencies decide it's time for change, however. Switching away from corn sweeteners won't be easy. Cheap corn is, after all, the basis of many processed foods. It's not just the HFCS, of course. Corn is the source of oil for salad dressing and frying, of coloring for sodas, juices and yogurts, of livestock feed that makes $1 hamburgers possible.

"Over time, consumers will change their diets as they are taught the real cost of food," Shanahan says. "This is going to be a diminishing problem." Food and beverage makers have plenty of skin in this game and may as well get ahead of eventual regulation, he says, adding that a healthful product line is where the industry is headed. "Food processors are only doing what the man wants. They're going to sell you healthy food if you want it."

Just as with tobacco, we're in for a decade or two of growing awareness about the destructive effects of our subsidized cheap-sweetener system, with lawsuits and regulations to follow. But we'll get over it, Shanahan says. "In this transitional period, people don't want to eat the stuff, but they'll be more than happy to put it in their cars."

This story was updated to include a statement from the Corn Refiners Association.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

How to Buy a Car

How to get the best deal and buy a car with confidence.

View Course »

Introduction to Economic Indicators

Measure the performance of the economy.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

Soda: slow death!

September 16 2010 at 12:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Carolinaladie65's comment

I sent you an email from sagainstthewind please reply back. is your name Deana? I was wondering why you were on my husband's yahoo email account.

January 03 2012 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Can anyone please tell me what the teaser headline, "Soda Market May Lose Its Sparkle" have to do with high fructose corn syrup. The term sparkle, when used in conjunction with soft drinks, has traditionally meant carbonation. One would assume that if corn syrup is used to replace cane sugar the carbonation would remain the same. And here's something for all of us to consider: If indeed, high fructose corn syrup is the energy source of choice for cancer cells, and, in some cases, cause the onset of cancer, it becomes obvious that all fruits and most vegetables, which contain high leverls of fructose, or fruit sugar, are potential sources for cancer, and therefore dangerous to eat. So let's see...red meat is bad, all fruits and most vegetables are bad, processed meats contain sodium nitrates which are bad, bread is bad... so what is left to eat...nuts and berries? Oh, that's right berries are a fruit and dangerous, so that just leaves nuts. And that's hot I'll end this epistle...NUTS!!

August 16 2010 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dickn2000b's comment

This is the first I have heard about the debate on sugar and high fructose corn syrup but for several years, my husband and I have agreed that when foods were sweetend with either cane sugar or beet sugar, they tasted better, It always comes down to money doesn't it? Mother nature knows what is best for us.

August 17 2010 at 1:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes in the begining Coke had cocane in it hence the name , Many drinks back then were made with a small kick. Then as always people found a way to over due it and out it came Cough syrups have sugar in them too and if they did not there would not be many kids not fighting not to take it

August 16 2010 at 2:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What's the problem? If Corn Syrup, isn't good for Americans, Don't use it. It's just that simple. Take a good look at people walking on our streets, We have so many "tubbies" it's unbelievable. The chickens in the case for us to put on our table, are heavier than ever & Tyson, Purdu, etc., says they don't use hormones(?), Beef is more "marbled(?) than ever & Packers say there's NO hormones used(?) THEN, what are they feeding the animals who pass through our digestive track? Could it be CORN SYRUP? Yes, corn syrup is even in the packaged meat you put in your chops (why?)) For cnturies, no one ever sweetened their meat - why now? Even the turkey breast roasts are soaked in a sugar solution - why? It costs more because it has less fat - why more SUGAR/CORN SYRUP?

Read the labels of the SYRUP you pour on your PANCAKES, WAFFLES--Nothing in them that resembles the ORIGINAL way syrups were made. YOU don't know what's in them, EXCEPT CORN SYRUP (sometimes two kinds of CORN SYRUP(?) Read the labels on the SYRUP YOU PUT ON Y0UR PANCAKES AND WAFFLES - GUESS WHAT? There's nothing in them resembling the way the good, old-fashioned way syrup was made. If you don't believe it, take the time to read what you're putting in your mouth - it's devestating. Decided I'd do the sugar, vanilla, or maple syrup in my own pan in my own kitchen. To the dickens with the chemical industry.

Manufacturers are only interested in pocketing every penny possible & don't care about Americans health. Seems nothing's good,unless they change it to some ersatz junk. Like peanut oil removed from peanut butter (replaced with homogenized oil -that's CRISCO if you're lucky. They put the peanut oil in a bottle and sell it for another fortune you pay for (taking the good out of the peanut butter & get richer on collecting much more for the oil (Jimmy Carter's bread & peanut butter he's been collecting a tariff on since the October after he left office - WOW - - He's SO American. He raised the cost of PEANUT BUTTER FROM 50 CENTS TO $3.00 A JAR OVERNIGHT, with his TARIFF TAX, A REAL DEMOCRAT (but kept it secret from the people).

August 16 2010 at 1:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Welcome to another chapter of the food police. They hated glass bottles now we got plastic which is worse. The went after eggs and almost put the chicken people out of busuness . They tried to remove all pork from the shelves but found out it was the other white meat, then came the attack on beef They said it killed hundreds of thousands of people well wrong again The drugs they take kill more Now its sugar Natures sugar Shall we kill all the bees and plants that make sugar? To much of anything as always is bad for anyone even bean sprouts.

August 16 2010 at 1:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I recognized this concern about 1-2 years ago after a doctor diagnosed me with Asperger's Syndrome(High-functioning autism) during dialectic behavioral therapy. It seemed that although I have high-metabolism,(lucky me) it came to note that my mother would ALWAYS drink Coca-Cola, commonly includes high-fructose corn syrup. However, high-fructose isn't only in soda. It is also in forms of bread and cereals. Then you wonder why FDA is asking us to have most servings of food in that food group.

August 16 2010 at 1:50 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

All the studies can not make people eat or drink any product! How about a study why people over eat and drink! Plus If soda is bad what about Beer and Other Alcoholic drinks!? Seems like no one wants to go after the good stuff!!! Beer Guts are better I guess!

August 16 2010 at 1:27 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

and...amen Duster. It's all about the money. The soda industry must have pissed off someone in Wahington

August 16 2010 at 1:25 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Who knows what this "natural" ingredient does to the human body? How many times have they said that something was going to give us cancer, only to have the claims withdrawn later? The bigger threat to our health is the way that science is making GMO foods. Do you know that when you buy produce that chances are, they are grown from genetically modified seeds? The seeds from this produce will not grow, They have one season. The weeds won't grow around it and bugs won't eat the corn grown from those seeds...but yet they feed it to us. Thank you Monsanto (the same who bring us Round-Up)

August 16 2010 at 1:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If you have tasted the diference between juices, and softdrinks processed with cane sugar, vs high fructose corn syrup the difference is dramatic. The choice is obvious. High fructose corn syrup is cheap, and it makes everything it's added to taste cheap.

August 16 2010 at 1:07 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply