I recently saw a commercial advertising the safety of high fructose corn syrup ingestion. Although I was not swayed by the obviously partial information given in support of the product, including its equality with sugar concerning number of calories and its origin from corn, the commercial was good for one thing: making me realize I didn’t know why HFCS is unhealthy.
Many of us have heard of the studies connecting the rise of obesity in the U.S. over the past 30 years to the widespread use of HFCS. However, without an understanding of the science behind the sweet preservative, such studies are susceptible to easy dismissal since correlation itself does not prove causation.
In typical modern-day autodidact fashion, I referred to Google for the answers to my questions. My research method involved reading what proponents had to offer by way of argument first, then referring to opponents for rebuttal. I was disappointed and, honestly, insulted to find that the sponsored HFCS proponent site offered blatantly partial information. If you take a trip to Sweet Surprises, you can read about the similarities between table sugar and HFCS. However, the meaning of their two main differences is not even touched upon. Besides obvious differences of origin, the two main distinctions HFCS has from sugar are 1) a 55% fructose content as opposed to the 50% found in sugar, and 2) the fructose molecules are “free,” or chemically unbound to the glucose molecules, whereas in sugar the two are bound.
With that information alone, HFCS doesn’t seem bad at all! Nowhere on this site, however, can one find the meanings of the 5% fructose difference or the chemically unbound fructose. Smelling a rat, I moved on to phase 2 of research: the opponents. One of the most informative reports on the subject is given by Princeton University. Researchers conducted two studies on the effects of HFCS introduction to the diets of lab rats. One study compared HFCS-fed rats to those consuming normal rat fare. The other compared the effects of HFCS on one group of rats with the effects of sugar on the other. Refer to the link following this article for an explanation of the overwhelming evidence against HFCS’s similarity to sugar. Yet correlation is not enough, as admitted above. The site also explains, to an extent, the difference between bonded and unbonded molecules. When fructose and glucose are chemically bonded, the fructose undergoes an additional metabolic process that it is not subjected to when it is free, as in HFCS.
This was a step forward, but I wanted more. Where does free fructose go? How is it metabolized by itself? After many search inquiries and much scrolling, I found a useful report at Diabetes Health, which names the metabolic process fructose evades as glycolysis. Since it is not broken down by this process, it leads to the production of fatty acids. This supports a causal connection between HFCS and obesity.
Supporting and adding to this connection is the following information offered by Nutrition&Metabolism: The liver is the main metabolizer of fructose. A large quantity of fructose disrupts the proper use of glucose by the body and can lead to “insulin resistance.” Insulin resistance is the body’s inability to use the insulin it produces properly. This connection could validate studies whose results indicate a connection between HFCS ingestion and metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and also between HFCS and liver damage.
Since fructose is a part of table sugar as well, sugar consumption must be moderated in order to have a healthy diet. The claim that HFCS is essentially the same as sugar, though, seems to be completely false, since the fructose therein is filtered less by the body’s metabolic processes.
We can see that there are numerous sources for information on HFCS. Research is not 100% conclusive, but we have every reason to believe it will be soon. While the Corn Refiners’ Association continues to gleefully shout that HFCS is “made of corn!” and “has the same amount of calories as sugar!”, their partial claims can serve to motivate us to do our own research and obtain a well-rounded understanding of what we eat. A substance that is found in the majority of products sold at the grocery store should not be shrouded in mystery or misinformation. We owe it to ourselves to demand more.
Corn Refiners Association, “High Fructose Corn Syrup Health and Diet Facts.” Sweet Surprises.
Hilary Parker, “A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain.” Princeton.
Christopher R. Mohr, MS, RD, LDN, “The Dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup.” Diabetes Health.
Heather Basciano, Lisa Federico, and Khosrow Adeli, “Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia.” Nutrition&Metabolism.