The High Fructose Corn Syrup Controversy
11/05/2010 update: Studies of foods containing high fructose corn syrup find a much higher percentage of fructose than previously reported: 65/35 instead of 55/45 as discussed below.
03/23/2010 update: Two new studies may confirm the role of high fructose corn syrup in obesity.
The average American consumes more than 60 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) every year. HFCS is found as a sweetener in nearly every aisle of every supermarket in America, even in some foods that you wouldn't really consider sweet. So ubiquitous has it become that it may astonish you to learn that HFCS didn't even exist in its current form until the late 1960s. It wasn't used in foods until the mid-1970s.
The Benefits of High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup has a number of features that sped its adoption by the food industry:
- It is cheaper than traditional refined sugar (sucrose) from sugar beets or sugar cane.
- It is easier and cheaper to transport than traditional sugar, because it is a liquid, and it mixes more easily.
- It has a longer shelf life than traditional sugars.
- It softens and improves moisture control in certain food products.
- It helps prevent freezer burn of frozen products.
- It helps brown bread.
These features made it extremely attractive to processed food manufacturers. But is what's good for the balance sheets of multinational food conglomerates necessarily good for our health?
The Risks of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The answer, nutritionists increasingly believe, is no.
High fructose corn syrup began to come under scrutiny when a few nutritionists noticed that the widespread introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the late 70's and early 80's corresponded suspiciously well to a sudden rise in obesity rates, after decades of relative stability.
The Rise of Obesity
- Sugar Coated
We're drowning in high fructose corn syrup. Do the risks go beyond our waistline?
- The Double Danger of High Fructose Corn Syrup
Bill Sanda exposes problems with the industry's favorite sweetener.
- The Bitter with the Sweet
The story behind the corn industry's cloying ad blitz
- The Literal Cost of High Fructose Corn Syrup
Interesting look at the economics of HFCS
HFCS, Obesity, and Heart Disease
Their investigation turned up several interesting traits.
Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruits. Though the amount in actual fruits is insignificant and any health risks are mitigated by the other nutritional benefits of fruit, in concentrated forms such as HFCS, fructose is associated with many health problems.
It has long been known that fructose does not promote the production of insulin, as glucose and other sugars do. It also does not signal the production of leptin, a hormone produced by the body's fat cells. Insulin and leptin both play in important role in regulating appetite. Both signal the body to start suppressing appetite. For this reason, some researchers believe that consuming a diet that is high in fructose, especially concentrated fructose in isolation, may encourage people to eat more calories and therefore gain more weight.
Additionally, insulin helps metabolize glucose so it is burned quickly as energy. Fructose, in contrast, is metabolized by the liver, and when large or concentrated amounts of fructose are consumed, the liver cannot metabolize it fast enough and converts it to triglycerides - fat - instead. High triglyceride levels are a major risk factor for heart disease and many other health problems.
High fructose consumption is also associated with greater insulin resistance, a risk factor for type two (adult onset) diabetes, and increased risk of kidney stones, bowel disorders, and other problems.
Researchers at Yale University recently announced that they may have found the "missing link" between high fructose corn syrup and diabetes. They believe that high consumption of fructose leads to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, due to fructose's ready conversion to fat in the liver. Fatty liver disease then impedes the function of the liver, resulting in insulin resistance and, eventually, type 2 diabetes.
HFCS, or Sugar in General to Blame?
Fructose occurs in HFCS at a rate of about 55% fructose to 45% glucose, slightly higher than the 50/50 ratio of table sugar. It is unclear whether the 5% difference in fructose concentration between HFCS and table sugar would really make a significant difference in obesity and heart disease rates. Some researchers feel that the issue isn't HFCS itself, but rather the total amount of sugars of any sort consumed.
UPDATE - In November 2010, new studies emerged finding that the percentage of fructose in foods containing HFCS was higher than previously claimed: 65% fructose to 35% glucose, instead of 55% fructose to 45% glucose. Although a 5% difference in fructose between HFCS and table sugar is not generally considered significant, a 15% difference is, and this may account for the serious health impacts of excess HFCS consumption.
Soft drink consumption, for example, skyrocketed 200% among teenagers between 1965 and 1996, while milk consumption dropped 36%. The USDA suggests people limit themselves to 10-12 teaspoons of added sugars per day, the amount contained in a single average can of soda pop. Among teenagers, one fourth of boys drink more than 2 cans per day, and one in twenty drinks 5 cans or more every day. Rates are similar for girls.
Combine high soda consumption with the HFCS found in everything from breakfast cereal and bagels to ketchup and hot dog buns to canned soups and pasta sauces, and the severity of the problem becomes clear. With consumption rates like this, does it really matter what kind of sugar we're eating and drinking?
Well... it might.
Other HFCS Concerns
High fructose corn syrup may react with chemicals used in carbonated beverages to produce unusually high levels of harmful compunds called carbonyls, which are associated with increased risk of diabetes and other health problems.
At least one of the enzymes used to break down corn starch into high fructose corn syrup is genetically modified, as is a large percentage of the corn used to make HFCS. Consumers avoiding genetically modified foods for health or moral reasons should avoid HFCS.
Avoiding the Risks
- Cultivate a taste for plain water. Water has zero calories and all the benefits of proper hydration. One of the oldest diet tricks in the book is to drink a large glass of water before a meal - this will help you feel fuller and eat less.
- Read food labels. You will be astonished by how frequently you find HFCS listed among the ingredients, and possibly even more astonished by how often it is listed among the first five ingedients. You can start gradually by limiting your consumption of foods that list HFCS among the first five ingredients, or dive in headfirst by attempting to cut HFCS out of your diet entirely.
- Cook from scratch as much as possible. Cooking from scratch with fresh, real ingredients allows you full control over what goes into your mouth, unlike processed foods or restaurant meals, both of which are often high in HFCS.
- Reduce consumption of refined sugars in general. Although HFCS is probably a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic due to its sheer ubiquity, sucrose (table sugar) and other refined sugars cannot be absolved of blame. Reducing or eliminating refined sugars in your diet and replacing them with honey and fruit is a major step towards reclaiming good health.