The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was first developed in the mid-1960s and, because of its unique physical and functional properties, was widely embraced by food formulators. As scientific research continues to mount over its role in obesity, so does the controversy over this man-made liquid sweetener and preservative, and the corn industry is ramping up an ad campaign to counter the negative publicity.
But consumers and the sugar industry aren’t buying it. With sales of products containing HFCS at all-time lows, and the sugar industry now suing corn refiners for false and misleading claims, food manufacturers like Kraft are beginning to formulate their products without the use of HFCS in response to consumer demand. With the increasing number of Americans who now have a corn allergy that comes as welcome news.
Today’s article is a guest post from Dr. Jonny Bowden, also known as The Rogue Nutritionist, a nationally known expert on weight loss and nutrition whose articles have appeared in Forbes, the New York Times, Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
I am in awe of the recent TV commercials where two mothers are talking and one questions the other about serving some sweetened fruit punch to her kids. The first mother says, “That stuff’s got high fructose corn syrup in it, and you know what they say about that.”
To which the second mother replies, “What? That it’s natural and made from corn? And that in moderation, it’s perfectly fine?”
Clever commercial. And utterly misleading.
In the beginning, there was plain old table sugar, also known by its scientific name,sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (“di” meaning “two,” “saccharide” meaning “sugar”). That means it’s actually a blend of two “simple” (mono) saccharides, in this case glucose and fructose.
Take a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose, link them with a chemical bond and presto, you’ve got yourself a molecule of sucrose. Put a bunch of those sucrose molecules together in a bowl, place the bowl on the table at the local diner with a little spoon in it, and you’re in business.
Now it’s pretty much a given that high intake of sugar is bad for you, and a list of all reasons why would pretty much fill a book, so let’s save that for another day. But what’s interesting is that a fair amount of research has been done investigating exactly which of the two components of sugar is worse for you—glucose or fructose. And the hands-down winner in the “this stuff is bad” category is…fructose.
Figuring Out Fructose…
Fructose is a naturally occurring fruit sugar found, for example, in an apple. In this form, fructose is absolutely fine.
But the difference between fructose in an apple and fructose in a soda is the difference between a beautiful fur coat on a wild fox and that same fur on the back of a lady at the opera. It’s gorgeous on its original owner (the fox). But on the lady? Not so much.
When fructose is found in its original setting (like an apple or a berry), it’s surrounded with healthful nutrients like phytochemicals and fiber. When it’s extracted and made into a liquid sweetener, it’s a complete nightmare.
Studies have shown that fructose produces insulin resistance in animals. Insulin resistance is a central feature of metabolic syndrome and type ll diabetes.
More than any other kind of sugar, fructose raises triglycerides—a serious risk factor for heart disease. In 2000, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto fed a high-fructose diet to rodents that have a fat metabolism similar to our own—Syrian golden hamsters. In a matter of weeks, the hamsters developed both elevated triglycerides and insulin resistance.
Fructose has also been linked to non-alcoholic, fatty-liver disease. Rats that were given high fructose diets developed a number of undesirable metabolic abnormalities including elevated triglycerides, weight gain, and extra abdominal fat. So it’s no wonder it contributes mightily to creating new fat on your body.
Interestingly, fructose does not raise blood sugar very much, leading to the wrongheaded idea (popular for a while) that it’s a “good” sugar for diabetics. It’s not. It’s bad news.
From Bad to Worse…
Now in the “olden” days, sugar—table sugar that is, plain old sucrose—was expensive. Not maybe for the average Joe picking up a bag at the grocery store, but for food manufacturers wanting to sweeten products, it was definitely a high-ticket ingredient.
Between sugar tariffs that drove the price of sugar higher and corn subsidies the forced the price of corn lower, a perfect environment was setup to allow food manufacturers to find a solution to the problem of expensive sugar. Enter high fructose corn syrup.
Take a subsidized crop (like corn), perform a bunch of chemical operations on it, and voila, you had something that was even sweeter than sucrose at a fraction of the cost. Better yet, it could be added to virtually everything on the table, making those items even more “delicious” and desirable and, of course, moving more product.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. Chemically speaking, high fructose corn syrup reallyisn’t that different from table sugar (sucrose). High fructose corn syrup—at least the most common kind found in soft drinks—is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. It’s not a huge difference from the 50/50 mix in plain old sugar.
But the problem is that it’s everywhere.
“The low cost of high fructose corn syrup allowed the explosion of 20-ounce sodas, super big gulps and the like to happen,” says C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD, a research scientist and nutritionist at the USDA. “Because sucrose was quite expensive, for years, sodas were limited to the 12-ounce can. We have also had an explosion of candies, bakery items, and ice cream novelties, which would have been just too costly if they were all made with sugar. But now, because of high fructose corn syrup, these items are much cheaper to produce.”
So, no matter how you cut the HFCS-sweetened cake, we’re now consuming more fructose than ever. And refined fructose-—whether we get it from table sugar or from the ubiquitous HFCS—is bad news for your health.
When the Corn Refiners Assocation fights back with their “pro-HFCS” ads, it seems to come down to two arguments: One, it’s no worse than sugar (OK maybe, but that’s like saying Salems are no worse than Marlboros), and two, it’s natural because cause it’s made from corn.
Maybe so, but so is ethanol, and I’m not drinking that either.
To learn more about the author of this article, Dr. Jonny Bowden, whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and on Fox News, please visit http://www.jonnybowden.com