In its unrelenting progression toward the zenith of sweetness, the American diet has over the years hit a couple of high points—or are they low points? The first significant marker occurred in the 1890s with the cola revolution. Instead of water, folks began to drink sugar-water when they were thirsty. Like the milling of “de-natured” white flour, that was a defining moment in the short but powerful history of junk food.
Then, in the 1970s, food technologists dreamed up some new support for the sweet-tooth culture: High-fructose corn syrup replaced sugar as the sweetening agent in soft drinks. Ounce for ounce, corn syrup is six times sweeter than sugar as well as a great deal cheaper—think of all those Midwestern cornfields. It was a gold mine for the soda pop titans.
The American diet now floats on a flood of soda sweetened almost exclusively with fructose. Soda consumption, which averaged 22.2 gallons per person a year in 1970, reached 56 gallons per person a year by 1999. And every day since then another school district makes “exclusive” deals with the soft drink or sweetened fruit juice giants to promote and sell their particular brands in the local institutions of learning. The rewards? Definitely not our children’s nutrition. No, the answer is cash for budget-pressed schools.
Now we are finding that high-fructose corn syrup turns out to be bad for us and we’re in deep trouble. Emerging research has demonstrated that big doses of corn syrup are just what the human metabolism doesn’t need. Animal research on rats and hamsters dropped the first hints in the mid-1990s. Now it’s our turn. What if you’re a male and one of the 27 million very high consumers of fructose? Research done at the University of Minnesotawould indicate that on average you’d elevate your triglyceride level by 32 percent. Anyone who does that shouldn’t let his health insurance lapse.
Triglyceride is the sticky fat that crowds the bloodstream after meals. At excessively high levels, it signals potential cardiovascular trouble. One of the advantages of doing Atkins is that cutting back on carbs lowers your triglyceride level.
We now know that fructose is used by the liver as a building block of triglyceride. It seems, in this regard, to affect the liver much as insulin does. In a nice reverse whammy, triglyceride goes into the bloodstream and makes our cells resistant to insulin. And insulin resistance, as you probably recall, is the fast road to fatigue, malaise, diabetes and, of course, obesity. As with so many things in the body, if you do one major thing wrong, you get kicked more than once for your troubles. Being significantly overweight encourages insulin disorders and increased triglycerides, which in turn reinforce being overweight.
University of London researcher P.A. Mayes believes that high fructose consumption causes the liver to release an enzyme called PDH that instructs the body to burn sugarinstead of fat. If true, then a high-fructose diet—and the average American consumes 9 percent of his or her daily calories in the form of fructose—is a major metabolic factor in favor of weight gain. Eating high on the fructose hog is essentially the reverse of the controlled carbohydrate nutritional approach. Doing Atkins encourages your body to burn primarily fat for energy. Considering the health implications of obesity, it seems like a clear-cut choice: Avoid high-fructose corn syrup.
Is it any surprise that a 1999 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (vol. 69, p. 445) found that the rate of growth of Body Mass Index (roughly speaking, how fat we all are) since 1968 more or less paralleled, year by year, the increasing number of new condiments, candies, snacks and bakery foods introduced in the United States? So our rising level of obesity equals not fat consumption, but junk food carbohydrate consumption. And most of those foods—including supposedly healthy low-fat breakfast cereals—are now sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup just as soda is.
Fructose isn’t all bad, of course. We all get some of it naturally in fruits, and in moderation, berries and other low-glycemic fruits are certainly good sources of nutrients. As in so many areas, it’s excess that creates a problem. And our society’s relationship with soda and other fructose-bearing packaged foods is now nothing if not excessive.
We need to get a handle on this problem. After all, we’re not only hurting ourselves; the rest of the world follows in our footsteps. Junk food Americana could easily become junk food planet Earth—and with it, global obesity and its attendant health risks. Read food and beverage labels and start your boycott of high-fructose corn syrup today!