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Know the motives of food industry

Published April 09. 2011 09:00AM

On May 23, 2009, the Times News ran a "Fitness Master" article titled "No surprise that 20 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds now obese." In it, I noted the dramatic rise in obesity since the mid-1970s in both children and adults, stressed the increased use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) by American food processors since that time, and suggested the former was to some degree a result of the latter.

By May 25, I received a lengthy e-mail from the Corn Refiners Association that tactfully challenged the research cited with contrary research. By May 27, I received a mailing containing the same letter and 25 pages of additional pro-HFCS research.

Since then, I have written several more articles about the dangers of HFCS, and the pattern stays the same: an article published on Saturday equals a very polished, professional, and polite e-mail from the CRA on Monday. (The postal mailings only occur occasionally.) This correspondence hasn't changed my thoughts on HFCS, but it certainly makes me feel important, albeit temporarily.

After all, there are about 390 million people in the U.S., and on a Saturday, maybe, just maybe, 25,000 of them read my column. Yet the CRA feels the need to refute what I write by the next business day.

But the CRA's quick correspondence really has little to do with me or my writings and everything to do with you. It's just another example of the degree to which big business exerts influence on you and your dietary habits.

To say the major food producers have most Americans hook, line, and sinker is no exaggeration and rather apropos. Remember, in the course of the last two generations, the percentage of overweight adult Americans has nearly tripled while the percentage of obese children aged 6-19 has gone a bit beyond that.

To say that the food producers are solely responsible would be wrong. Yet failure to recognize the correlation between the poor quality of the "convenience" foods incessantly advertised and too frequently consumed and the increase in obesity, diabetes, as well as the fact that the former is often the cause of cancer and heart disease would be a far greater error.

Consider the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported a 50-year-old with diabetes lives six fewer years than a 50-year-old not afflicted with that disease and that the six years lost is just one year less than the life forfeited by the choice to be a 50-year-old smoker.

Moreover, those with Type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, and their rate of contracting cancer increases by 25 percent.

Additionally, those who gain weight without developing diabetes still increase their likelihood of contracting cancers. In an article written by Karen Ravn and carried in many Tribune Company newspapers, Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said, "Obesity is almost like the new smoking."

In fact, when all types of cancers are considered, fewer cancer deaths are now attributed to smoking than obesity.

So the real question today for too many people is, "How do I get the food producers' proverbial fish hook out of my mouth before I get tossed with the rest of the catch into the boat?"

By getting to know the inner workings of your body and the motives of food producers, that how.

And research released online in February and in print in March from the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism serves as a starting point for the first task. In it, Jonathan Purnell, M.D., notes that previous studies established "from animal models [show] that the brain responds uniquely to different nutrients and that these responses can determine how much they eat."

These studies led to new research that used human brains and two sugars: glucose and fructose. What Purnell and his colleagues saw by real-time MRI images was the ingestion of glucose activating the elements of the brain that allows the body to respond to the consumption of that sugar.

In other words, the taste and smell of glucose registers. The body becomes aware of it and the fact that you are digesting it.

This response elicited by glucose, in Purnell's opinion, makes it "less likely to promote weight gain."

But when subjects were fed fructose, brain control wasn't affected it doesn't "register" creating a situation where you are far more likely to overeat.

Chances are, however, that food producers already knew that.

And slowly, it seems, consumers are figuring this out, too. A Mintel survey referenced in the "News Bites" column of the February Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter found that 35 percent of consumers now avoid products containing HFCS and that 84 percent feel the government should require food producers to list separately the amount of HFCS in products.

Interestingly enough, 64 percent still believe that HFCS is "OK in moderation," but if the research done by Purnell is accurate, the body can't accurately gauge moderation of fructose.

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