Sunday, June 6, 2010

China: a new major player in the HFCS scene

The sweet taste of danger in eating

Monday, March 1, 2010
By Andy Ho, The Straits Times/Asia News Network

SINGAPORE -- Fructose is now suspected of being a main cause of obesity in ways table sugar cannot be... You don't feel full after consuming food sweetened with fructose in the same way you would if you consumed glucose. This leads you to eat even more.

Sugar prices have risen to a 29-year high in Asia, where demand is skyrocketing. After all, India is the world's largest consumer of sugar with China following immediately behind.

It does seem, however, a tad odd that the United States is not numero uno in this regard. After all, a third of its adult population is obese, according to the National Centre for Health. Also, nine million U.S. children aged above six are obese, according to the Institute of Medicine.

One reason might be that U.S. sugar prices are twice the world's average, because of longstanding sugar quotas. Hence, U.S. food manufacturers have resorted to a substitute called high fructose corn syrup. It helps that the corn used to make this substitute sweetener is heavily subsidized by the federal government.

Because U.S. farm policy has been directed towards the overproduction of commodity crops used primarily in industry and as animal feed, crops like corn and soy beans are priced artificially low. By contrast, fresh produce receives much less government support and is consequently priced relatively higher.

Thus, while U.S. prices of sugar substitutes and vegetable oils have declined in the last two decades, those of fresh fruits and vegetables have risen 40 percent in the same period. These imbalances have obvious impacts on the eating habits - and health - of U.S. residents.

Buoyed by sugar quotas on the one hand and corn subsidies on the other, high fructose corn syrup introduced into the U.S. diet in the 1970s has become a big money spinner. Today, it accounts for more than half of the U.S. 'natural' sweetener market. It is used mainly in soft drinks but also in juices, cereals, pastries, salad dressings, condiments, jams, ice cream and tinned fruit.

According to The World Sugar Market, how to make sweeteners from starch industrially was already known in the 19th century. But production of such sweeteners trebled only from the early 1970s when sugar prices surged. The book, written by economists at the London-based International Sugar Organization, notes that Americans consume 30 percent more fructose now than they did in the early 1970s and triple more than they did a century ago. Coincidentally perhaps, 100 years ago, only 5 percent of Americans were obese.

Fructose is now suspected of being a main cause of obesity in ways table sugar cannot be. In The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making You Fat And Sick, Dr Richard Johnson, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida, Gainesville, writes about the mounting evidence for this claim.

Of course, overeating and under-exercising matter a lot, but Dr Johnson stresses that people are consuming too much fructose per se. The problem is not just calories as such. Instead, fructose also confuses the hormonal systems that signal hunger and satiety.

Basically, the simplest sugar called glucose, when digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, dampens the hunger hormone (ghrelin) while also stimulating the satiety hormone (leptin). In this way, glucose in your food makes you feel full.

By contrast, fructose not only has no impact on ghrelin, but also interrupts leptin. So you don't feel full after consuming food sweetened with fructose in the same way you would if you consumed glucose. This then leads you to eat even more.

In addition, the more fructose you consume over time, the more sensitized to it your system becomes. This means that habitual consumption of fructose sees your body over-responding to it, so you feel even less satiated, which leads to even greater overeating and thus obesity.

Dr Johnson's own published studies show that fructose tends to lead to raised blood pressure and elevated blood levels of uric acid, fats and sugar. Habitual consumers are more likely to develop obesity, hypertension and diabetes as well.

Moreover, fructose is metabolized differently from glucose. While glucose, the simplest sugar, can be used by every cell in the body as an energy source, fructose -- a far more complex sugar -- has to be broken down by the liver first.

While the liver processes only 20 percent of all glucose consumed, the organ has to process all fructose ingested. This metabolic process in the liver leads to many waste products - not only uric acid, but also bad cholesterol as well as free fatty acids.

The free fatty acids then become converted into triglycerides, which are stored in the liver as fat. Thus, over-consumption of fructose also predisposes one to fatty liver, which can end up scarred, leading to even liver failure.

U.S. residents should be very concerned, especially about their soft drinks, what with 75 percent of all fructose produced being used in their sodas.

According to The World Sugar Market, fructose dominates only in the U.S. and Japan because of the "favorable pricing policies and attractive tax structures" in these countries. Set-up production costs are so high that fructose is unlikely to replace sugar elsewhere. That is, unless the government steps in, as it has in Taiwan and South Korea.

In China, because Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola have gone into the market in a huge way, they have set up plants to make fructose for their own use there. Elsewhere in Asia, however, sugar is still largely the sweetener used in soft drinks.

In the European Union (EU), very onerous fructose quotas mean that it has remained a bit player. The EU accounts for just 3 percent of the world's fructose consumption. On health grounds alone, we should emulate the Europeans.


So, I came across this article because I was trying to understand the emergence of China as a major producer of HFCS.  Based on this article, it would appear that China's emergence in this market is due (at least in part) to "skyrocketing" sugar prices and the presence of Coke and Pepsi plants.  Although I know from other import/export sites that the HFCS manufacturers in China DO export, this article suggests that at least the majority of Chinese HFCS is domestically consumed.

Some interesting facts/statements contained in this article:

75% of the world's HFCS is consumed by the U.S (in large part due to subsidies and tariffs)
3% of the world's HFCS is consumed in the EU (again, apparently at least in part due to quotas.)

Government involvement (i.e. subsidies/tariffs/quotas) seems to determine where HFCS dominates.  In the absence of subsidies/tariffs/quotas, it would appear that HFCS doesn't really emerge in any major way, at least in part due to the high costs associated with setting up the manufacturing plants and facilities.  So, domestically manufactured products are unlikely to contain HFCS, which leaves only imported goods, which will be affected by quotas and tariffs, etc.

The final sentence of this China Post, a Taiwanese newspaper, article is noteworthy:
On health grounds alone, we should emulate the Europeans.

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