High-fructose corn syrup isn't completely responsible for the nation's 6 million overweight children — but Dr. George Bray says it's...

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FORT WORTH, Texas — High-fructose corn syrup isn’t completely responsible for the nation’s 6 million overweight children — but Dr. George Bray says it’s a big part of the problem.

Nurture trumps nature in the current childhood-obesity epidemic, says Bray. It’s the environment we’re creating for our kids that’s the problem, and that environment includes increasing numbers of products high in high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.

Bray, who served as founding president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity and organized the first international congress on obesity in 1973, points out that between 1970 (when HFCS was introduced) and 2000 (when average yearly consumption of the ultra-sweet liquid sugar hit 73.5 pounds per person in this country), the prevalence of obesity more than doubled, from 15 percent to almost one-third of the adult population.

And worse, much worse, obesity among children 12 to 19 — who consume a disproportionate amount of the soft drinks, fruit juice, sports drinks and packaged cookies and other baked goods that are sweetened with HFCS — increased from 4.2 percent in 1970 to 15.3 percent in 2000.

Dangers of obesity

The implications for our children’s future are clear: “We know that if it’s not caught early, one in three of these overweight children will grow into overweight adults at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and early death,” Bray said at an October presentation in Fort Worth.

But there is hope. Obesity is largely preventable through changes in lifestyle, especially diet, says Bray, who called for removing soda machines from schools and reducing portion sizes of commercially available sodas in his now-famous commentary in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2004.

Cutting back the sugar

Here are some easy ways to cut down on high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars:

Buy only 100 percent juice instead of fruit “drinks,” “punches,” “cocktails” or “-ades,” which are simply code names for added sugar — primarily high-fructose corn syrup.

That said, choose whole fruits over fruit juices. Even 100 percent juices supply a concentrated source of fructose and calories without the fiber and nutrients found in whole fruits. Limit juice to one 8-ounce serving a day.

Cut back on soda. A single 12-ounce can contains about 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Drink water, seltzer, sugar-free iced teas and low-fat milk instead.

Choose fruits canned in juice instead of heavy syrup and opt for unsweetened applesauce and frozen fruits.

Snack on a handful of nuts, a chunk of cheese or piece of fruit instead of sweets.

At breakfast, eat a bowl of low-sugar whole-grain cereal instead of a cereal bar, toaster pastry, doughnut or sweet roll.

High on sugar

The federal dietary guidelines recommend that we limit added sugars to about 8 teaspoons (32 grams) a day for an average 2,000-calorie diet. But many soft drinks far exceed that. Although the following bottles are labeled as 2 ½ servings per container, most people consume them in one sitting:

Arizona Raspberry Iced Tea (20-ounce bottle): 15 teaspoons of sugar

Pepsi (20-ounce bottle): 17 teaspoons of sugar

Hawaiian Punch (20-ounce bottle): 18 teaspoons of sugar

Chicago Tribune

Larger portions, more high-fat fast foods, less exercise of any kind, irregular sleep patterns, lower consumption of milk and other high-calcium foods, and increased consumption of HFCS in beverages go a long way toward explaining the obesity epidemic, Bray says.

“Genetic factors play an important role in the development of obesity, but given the rapidity with which the current epidemic of obesity has descended on the U.S. and many other countries, environmental factors are a more likely explanation,” he says. “Whatever its genetic and biochemical determinants, obesity in man is susceptible to an extraordinary degree of control of social factors. Environment is very important.”

You stop feeling full

Bray says the problem with HFCS is not only that it is sweeter than other forms of sugar, but also that it does not affect appetite. Fructose adds to overeating because it does not trigger chemical messengers that tell the brain the stomach is full and no longer hungry, like food and drinks that contain regular refined sugar do.

An internist whose pioneering research helped establish the connections between weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes, Bray is a research professor and former director of the Pennington Center at Louisiana State University, the largest nutritional research center in the world.

He says consumers would be a lot better off without added sugar in any form, but that artificial sweeteners are much preferred over calorically sweetened drinks, even for children.

“Children less than 5 probably shouldn’t have any sweetened drinks, and for older children, diet drinks are better than regular soft drinks and fruit drinks,” Bray said. “A lot of parents are concerned about the ‘chemicals’ added to sweeten diet soft drinks, but all forms of extra added sugar and artificial sweeteners are bad. We don’t need added sugar in our diet.”

Bray is calling for improved packaging and labeling for food meant to be consumed as a single serving. Too many ready-to-eat foods and drinks are labeled as single servings but packaged as two or even three servings.

“It’s hard to find a single-serving soft drink,” he said. “Portion size is something government (the Food and Drug Administration) can and should do something about.”