Experts dismayed by EU's backing of use of fructose
Fruit sugar has caused obesity to rise faster in the US than elsewhere, scientists say
Obesity experts in Europe are appalled by an EU decision to allow a "health claim" for fructose, the sweetener implicated in the upsurge in weight in the US.
Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is used in Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other drinks in the US. Many believe high-fructose corn syrup has caused obesity to rise faster in the US than elsewhere. Europe mainly uses cane and beet sugar.
But the EU has now ruled that food and drink manufacturers can claim their sweetened products are healthier if they replace more than 30 per cent of the glucose and sucrose they contain with fructose.
The decision was taken on the advice of the European Food Safety Authority, on the grounds that fructose has a lower glycaemic index. It does not cause as high and rapid a blood sugar spike as sucrose or glucose.
But obesity experts say fructose is metabolised differently from other sugars. It goes straight to the liver and unprocessed excess is stored there as fat, building up deposits that can cause life-threatening disease. There is potential for products high in sugar including soft drinks and low-fat yoghurts to make health claims by using fructose.
Barry Popkin, a distinguished professor in the department of public health at the University of North Carolina, who co-authored the ground-breaking paper linking high fructose corn syrup to obesity in 2003, said the ruling would lead to claims from food and drink firms that would mislead consumers.
"This claim is so narrow and it will confuse a whole lot of people," he said. "That's what the industry does an awful lot of. People see it and think maybe it's healthy. It brings into question the whole area of health claims. They are made on such short-term effects."
Drinking pomegranate juice might give you all the vitamin C and antioxidants you need that day, but six months of regular drinking could raise the risk of diabetes.
Popkin said a health claim relating to a lower glycaemic index ignored the more important issue that we should all consume less fructose and other sugars.
George Bray, head of clinical obesity and metabolism at the Pennington biomedical research centre in the US state of Louisiana and co-author on the fructose paper, said he could see no rational reason for adding pure fructose to the diet.
"Assuming that it is correct that manufacturers can substitute up to 30 per cent fructose for glucose or sucrose, it would be a very sad commentary on their review of the literature," he said.
Michael Goran, director of childhood obesity research at the University of Southern California, said: "In the long term, excess fructose is more damaging metabolically for the body than other sugars. This opens the door for the industry to start replacing sucrose with fructose, which is presumably cheaper."