After years of media reports linking the increasing consumption of high-fructose corn syrup with the growing obesity and diabetes epidemics, the Corn Refiners of America have decided to fight back with a series of misleading commercials designed to persuade you that this stuff’s not so bad after all.
Not so fast.
Up until the 1970s, table sugar, also known as sucrose, was the predominant sweetener in the American diet. But it was expensive. For various reasons having to do with farm subsidies and sugar tariffs, the much cheaper high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) replaced it as the sweetener of choice and is now the sole caloric sweetener used in soft drinks, and the predominant one used in candy, baked goods and virtually all other processed foods.
So there are actually three questions on the table here: First, what’s the problem with fructose? Second, is high fructose corn syrup any worse than the plain old sugar it replaced? And third, in general, is sugar in our diet really all that bad for us?
Let’s start with the basics. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning it’s made up of two (di-) simple sugars (saccharides): fructose and glucose. These happen to be the same two simple sugars that make up high-fructose corn syrup. Table sugar is about 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose while in most high-fructose corn syrups, the proportion is similar (but not identical): 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
And all that refined fructose–regardless of whether it comes from ordinary refined sugar or from HFCS–is playing havoc with our health.
Fructose is not a problem when it’s found in its natural habitat (like in an apple), where it comes packaged with fiber, phenols, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. But it’s a huge problem when we consume it as a sweetener, whether we get it from plain old table sugar or from high-fructose corn syrup.
In an ingenious study at the University of California, Davis, Peter Havel, Ph.D., Kimber Stanhope and a team of researchers investigated whether fructose is “worse” for you than glucose (the other component of both sucrose and HFCS). For two weeks, Havel and company fed a strictly controlled diet to 23 overweight or obese adults aged 43 to 70 years. The researchers measured all sorts of things like heart disease risk factors, cholesterol and other blood fats and weight. Then they split the subjects into two groups.
Both groups were allowed to eat whatever they liked, but each person had to drink three sweetened beverages a day, accounting for about one-quarter of their daily calories. Group One drank a beverage sweetened with pure glucose; Group Two drank a beverage sweetened with pure fructose.
After only two weeks of drinking their assigned beverages, the subject’s results made the problems with fructose immediately apparent. The fructose-drinking group showed increased risk factors for heart disease. Their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol went up, their triglycerides were elevated and-worst of all–their insulin sensitivity decreased significantly, a sign that their risk for both metabolic syndrome and diabetes had gone up. And, to add insult to injury, the fructose group gained an average of 3 pounds each; the glucose folks did not gain any weight.
In the year 2000, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto fed a high-fructose diet to Syrian golden hamsters, rodents that have a fat metabolism extremely similar to our own. In a matter of weeks, the hamsters developed both elevated triglycerides and insulin resistance. So even though fructose doesn’t directly raise blood sugar (a fact which led to its being wrongly recommended as the “perfect” sweetener for diabetics!), it actually increases insulin resistance, the central feature of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
Not a good thing.
Fructose is one of the worst sweeteners you can possibly use and we’ve known that for some time. Fifteen years ago, the prestigious (and conservative) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review article by P.A. Mayes, which stated that “long-term absorption of fructose [causes] enzyme adaptations that increase lipogenesis [fat creation], and VLDL [“bad” cholesterol] secretion, leading to decreased glucose tolerance and hyperinsulinemia.“ “A diet featuring even a moderate intake of refined sugar can supply around 200 grams of fructose daily,” says C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D., a nutritionist and research scientist with the USDA.
The only real question is whether high-fructose corn syrup (which, you remember, is about half fructose) is any worse than regular sugar (which is also about half fructose). And that answer isn’t 100 percent clear. On the one side is the argument that HFCS has at least 5 percent more fructose than sugar. For people who are heavy consumers of sweetened beverages, that could easily add up to an addition 20-30 grams a day of extra fructose–no minor issue when you consider what this sweetener does to the human body.
The other thing that’s insidious about high-fructose corn syrup is that it’s everywhere. “HFCS finds its way into many products that contained no sweeteners before the advent of HFCS”, says Michael Eades, M.D., “so since its development, we are eating more sweeteners because HFCS is in so many things.” Salad dressings are only one example.
The high-fructose corn syrup lobby likes to point out that there are studies that show no difference between the effect of table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup on the body. But what they fail to mention is the fact that in those studies both sugar and HFCS produced equally bad outcomes in tested populations! “The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990,” says Dr. Broadhurst, “far exceeding the changes in intake of any other food or food group.” That’s more refined fructose than we’ve ever consumed in history, and we’re witnessing the heavy metabolic costs.
Whether it comes from HFCS or table sugar, that kind of fructose intake is definitely not good news. Both HFCS and regular old table sugar are bad, and to the extent that you can reduce your intake of both of them, you’ll be doing your body and your health a huge favor.