The theory sounded logical in 2004, when an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proposed it. The study’s authors—including Barry Popkin, Ph.D., director of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center—pointed out that from 1970 to 1990 Americans’ intake of HFCS increased by more than 1,000 percent. The researchers also noted that, during that same time, the proportion of Americans who were overweight or obese increased from about half to two-thirds.
Singling out HFCS turned out to be unjustified, Popkin now admits. “Dozens of human studies on HFCS and energy intake and weight change show that our hypothesis was wrong.” The American Medical Association came to a similar conclusion last June, when it announced: “High-fructose corn syrup does not appear to contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners.”
So why are so many more Americans overweight? For one, we’re eating more, period: the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates show that, since 1970, our daily calorie intake has grown by a whopping 24 percent. Sweetened beverages have added a huge quantity of calories to our diets. “More than 450 of a person’s daily calories come from beverages, 40 percent from soft drinks or fruit juices,” says Popkin. Studies show that when we consume calories in liquid form our bodies don’t acknowledge them the way they do those from solid food and we don’t cut our food intake later. So should we blame HFCS, since it sweetens most sodas and sweet drinks? That’s guilt by association, not a direct cause, says Popkin. “Sugary beverages are the culprit, and whatever form the sugar is in does not matter.”