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Corn Syrup in Formula

Q After I read your advice to avoid high fructose corn syrup in sodas, I discovered the label of my infant formula lists "corn syrup" the second ingredient. Should I be concerned?

A Yes, very concerned. As I said in that earlier column, corn syrup should be avoided. In fact, this has become such a concern among pediatricians that I routinely talk to children as young as five about looking for the "bad word" on food labels  -- corn syrup. It's not too bad for adults and older children to have in limited quantities, but in my opinion, corn syrup has no place in infant nutrition  -- especially infant formulas. Here's why:

It's an artificial sweetener. Since the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been the darling of the food industry. Usually, the word "fructose" is thought to be synonymous with fruit  -- which everyone knows is healthy  -- and what could be harmful about something made from corn? But the fact is with HFCS the food industry has found a way to extract syrup from corn biochemically and then manipulate the percentage of fructose in this syrup. The ingredient you see on the label is not used because of any health benefits, but because it is sweeter and cheaper to produce than cane sugar. As you will see, this artificial sweetener is anything but healthy.

HFCS can make children fat. I share the opinion of many nutritionists and other doctors that the number one cause of the childhood obesity epidemic is the overconsumtpion of HFCS, mainly in the form of beverages. In fact, a study reported in the April 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that people who drank beverages containing HFCS gained more weight than people who ate the same number of calories that day but did not consume as much high fructose corn syrup. Part of the problem is biochemical. When your baby ingests normal sugars (such as those in breastmilk, fruits, vegetables, or milk-based infant formulas), these sugars stimulate the brain with signals saying, "You've eaten enough. Stop already!" Fructose, however, does not trigger the satiety signals like glucose does, so it's easier to overeat foods and beverages containing HFCS.

Too much HFCS can lead to serious health problems. Obesity leads to other health complications. That's why new research suggests that overconsumption of HFCS can lead to type II diabetes (also called insulin resistance) and heart disease. HFCS is metabolized in the liver differently than other sugars. It can increase the blood level of triglycerides, the fats that clog arteries and contribute to cardiovascular disease. Because HFCS undermines appetite control, you can see that overconsumption is a real risk. The United States is the world's highest consumer of high fructose corn syrup and we rank toward the top in obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. See any correlation?

HFCS shapes young tastes  -- in a bad way. One of the most valuable principles in infant and child nutrition is the idea of shaping young tastes. What you feed children when they are young will effect their eating habits  -- and their health  -- for the rest of their life. I tell this to all my patients, even to parents of young infants just beginning solid foods. I advise them to give their baby only the food that nature grows  -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products. In this way, the child's developing taste buds are programmed to recognize the normal tastes of healthy foods.

Artificial sweeteners in infant formulas can only increase the intensity of the sweet tooth that babies are already born with. The lactose sugar found in mother's milk is sweet, as is the lactose in milk-based infant formulas. Yet lactose is a sugar that the body recognizes and is equipped to metabolize as a normal sugar. In selecting a formula  -- unless your baby's doctor advises otherwise  -- stick to those that contain lactose, not fructose, as the main carbohydrate. This is the sugar nature put in milk, and nature makes few nutritional mistakes.