Media Coverage of High Fructose Corn Syrup and Other Nutritive Sweeteners
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For the past decade, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has played a prominent role in both the scientific and public debates over the health effects of nutritive sweeteners. It is used by manufacturers in place of ordinary sugar (sucrose) in many sweetened beverages and processed foods. In 2004 an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition argued that consumption of HFCS, particularly in sweetened beverages, may contribute to the obesity epidemic.
This claim stimulated a flood of research as well as efforts to reduce consumption of HFCS. Ordinary consumers depended on news media accounts to decide for themselves whether their intake of HFCS might be hazardous to their health. Thus, reporting on HFCS provides a valuable case study on how the media treat long-running scientific controversies with implications for both public health and public policy.
We selected eleven one-month time periods from 2004 to 2013 that included the release of significant scientific information on the health effects of HFCS in relation to other nutritive sweeteners. In addition to the original 2004 article that set off the controversy, these included five releases of information that supported the article’s claims and another five that questioned or challenged them. We analyzed both the news coverage of these research reports and the broader coverage of the debate over the health effects of HFCS and other nutritive sweeteners during these time periods.
From a sample of 120 print and electronic news outlets, we identified 567 stories containing 1512 statements assessing the health effects of nutritive sweeteners. In addition to tracking the distribution of coverage and opinion, we examined the role of scientific information in the coverage. This included the use of expert opinion and the details that news reports provided about the studies they cited.
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