The Media and Food Fears

In recent years, HFCS has been singled out in the media as the main cause of obesity and other health problems even though there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support such allegations.

James Krieger, MS, answers the question: Why all the confusing talk about HFCS?

Video FAQ: Why all the confusing talk about HFCS?

The claims first appeared in 2004 when Barry Popkin, of the University of North Carolina, and George Bray, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, published a commentary linking high-fructose corn syrup to obesity problems in America.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Food FearsWhile the commentary received publicity, it was met with negative reaction in the scientific community. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, derided it, telling the Associated Press that "the authors of this paper misunderstand chemistry, draw erroneous conclusions and have done a disservice to the public in generating this controversy."

Popkin was later quoted on Food Navigator saying "We were wrong in our speculations on HFCS about their link to weight." He reaffirmed this statement in 2011, when he told The Market Report, "All sugar you eat is the same... That's what we know now that we didn't know in 2004."

Additionally, Professor Bray changed his tune and was quoted in The New York Times  saying, "Sugar is sugar."

However, the media latched on to this perception and began circulating the popular myth that HFCS is worse than sugar.  So why did the media latch onto it if the authors' methods and conclusions were called into question? 

Media Misperceptions

There are many ways that journalists and bloggers can create incorrect perceptions all in the name of "news value."  Some of the ways they can impact our perception include:

  • Fear – Fear sells, especially when it comes to our health and our family's diet. It demands people's attention and makes for an intriguing headline or lead-in.
  • Simplification – The science of human metabolism is highly complex. In an effort to report on a new study, it is common to oversimplify and often misclassify the findings.
  • Review – A scientific paper should always be assessed by a wider community of scientists before its findings are published. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
  • Popularity – The media often promotes 'conventional wisdom' as opposed to scientific understanding when reporting on a popular topic. If a story runs counter to this news agenda, it receives less coverage and circulation.
In the case of HFCS, the media often demonize it specifically, compelling consumers to focus on this one ingredient instead of looking at their overall diet. This is a dangerous trend.  As a consumer, you need to be objective about the science you read or hear, be it about HFCS or another food fear.