High Fructose Corn Syrup: Good, Bad, or In Between?
It’s sweeter than sweet and inexpensive to boot, so food and beverage manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in virtually everything they make––from soft drinks (including “fruit” drinks) to jams, crackers, bread, yogurt, salad dressing, and even soup. Some research has suggested that fructose is not metabolized in the same way other sugars are, and that the proliferation of HFCS may be a contributing factor in our country’s obesity problem. But many experts believe it is no worse than any other sweetener; in fact, last July The New York Times called it “a sweetener with a bad rap.” So is this syrup the demon culprit behind obesity or wrongly accused?
Sweet and Evil
In 2004, researchers published an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluding “there is a distinct likelihood that the increased consumption of HFCS in beverages may be linked to the increase in obesity.” In this article, they explain that fructose does not stimulate the pancreas to release insulin and, in turn, does not trigger the secretion of the hormone leptin, which is instrumental in making us feel satiated. These researchers also point to the fact that the increased use of HFCS in the United States mirrors the dramatic increase in obesity. HFCS now accounts for more than 40 percent of the caloric sweeteners added to food and drinks.
This and other attacks on HFCS prompted the Corn Refiners Association to create a website, “HFCS Facts,” debunking myths and defending the sweetener. One point they make is that HFCS is not actually “high” in fructose. It contains either 42 or 55 percent fructose and the rest is mostly glucose. The proportions are roughly equivalent to table sugar, which is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose.
The Times article quotes two gurus in the field of nutrition both saying they do not believe there is evidence to support the idea that HFCS has uniquely contributed to the obesity epidemic. And when the Times reporter interviewed one of the authors of the 2004 journal article, the researcher said the idea of a unique link between HFCS and obesity was just a theory and that it could well be proved wrong with future science.
Diabetes and Fructose
What about those with diabetes? On the surface, it would seem that a sugar that doesn’t raise blood glucose and insulin would be a godsend for people with diabetes. However, like most things, it’s not that simple. First, fructose is combined with glucose and other sugars to make HFCS. Second, in animal studies, rodents fed large amounts of fructose became insulin resistant (a precursor to diabetes) and developed high triglycerides. Combine this with the idea that fructose may suppress the release of the appetite-regulating hormone leptin and you’ve got a prescription for upping obesity and diabetes risks.
The bottom line: Whether it’s table sugar, honey, or a highly processed sweetener like HFCS, added sugar is something we’re better off without––no matter what your health status. Get your sugars from natural, healthy sources and you can’t go wrong.
Reviewed by Susan Weiner, R.D., M.S., C.D.E., C.D.N. 3/08
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