The University of Southern California Childhood Obesity Research Center (CORC) has published a study claiming that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contains 18 percent more fructose than estimated by soft drink manufacturers. Emily Ventura, Jaimie Davis and Michael I. Goran, “Sugar Content of Popular Sweetened Beverages Based on Objective Laboratory Analysis: Focus on Fructose Content,” Obesity, October 2010. According to the study, food and nutrition researchers usually assume that the ratio of fructose to glucose in HFCS is 55 to 45, based on information provided by the Corn Refiners Association. But after analyzing 23 sugar-sweetened beverages and four standard solutions with high-performance liquid chromatography, CORC allegedly determined that not only was the mean fructose content 59 percent, but that “several major brands appear to be produced with HFCS that is 65 [percent] fructose.”

The study also raises questions about the other kind of sugars used in these beverages, reporting “significant deviations in sugar amount and composition relative to disclosures from producers.” It particularly notes that “total sugar content of the beverages ranged from 85 to 128 [percent] of what was listed on the food label.” As one author opines in an October 28, CORC press release, “Given the huge amount of soda Americans consume, it’s important that we have a more exact understanding of what we’re drinking, including specific label information on the types of sugars. The lack of information—or perhaps even misinformation—we have had about the fructose levels in HFCS-sweetened beverages means that soda drinkers may be gambling with their health even more than we have previously thought.”

The research has elicited responses from the Center for the Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) and New York University Professor Marion Nestle, who has tentatively reversed her previous position that HFCS does not differ significantly from table sugar. “The metabolic problems that result from sugar intake are mostly due to the fructose content. Less is better for health,” writes Nestle in an October 26, Food Politics blog post, which also outlines some caveats about the study’s methodology, including expert opinions on the analytic processes used to analyze sugar content.

Meanwhile, PHAI cautions that the study, if confirmed, “raises important legal questions for regulators and consumers.” In an October 27, blog post, PHAI staff attorney Cara Wilking notes that HFCS received its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status from the Food and Drug Administration because the purported fructose to glucose ratio mirrored that of table sugar. “Federal law specifically defines HFCS ‘as mixture containing either approximately 42 or 55 percent fructose.’ These are the only HFCS formulations that are GRAS and permitted for widespread use in the food supply without prior approval,” argues Wilking, who further explores whether the new results imply violations of federal law pertaining to food adulteration as well as false and misleading advertising and food labeling.

CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson has also weighed in, stating that the “confirmatory studies using the best analytical method need to be done before alarm bells ring too loudly… [N]o one should think that they’d be doing themselves a huge favor by switching to soft drinks made with sugar.” See CSPI News Statement, October 27, 2010.