High Fructose Corn Syrup and its real “Sweet Surprise”

(Originaly posted on bcotoronto.com on Feb 9th, 2012)

Does anyone else remember that “Sweet Surprise” commercial campaign from the Corn Refiner’s Association about High Fructose Corn Syrup? They still irk me personally. Not just the fact that both women are extremely rude and condescending to each other but that they make three claims, only one of which is true. It IS made from corn. But is it natural? Fine in moderation unlike sugar? This is what I would like to talk about this week, the truth behind High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

The first question is, “Is it natural?” Setting aside the fact that 95% of the corn grown in the USA is genetically modified and the debate around how natural or even safe it is, HFCS is HIGHLY processed. Processed foods were once natural and have now been stripped down to their components and put into a new configuration. You take away everything that is original and natural about the plant. Strictly speaking they are correct. That product was not artificially created but we will never find it in its current form in nature. I, for one, do not think that is natural.

There is also another aspect of this claim that is a common marketing tactic that drives me up the wall. Just because something is natural does not mean that it is good for us. “All New, All Natural Lead and Mercury Popsicles!” There is no false advertizing there. Both lead and mercury are natural and the substances used to make them into a popsicle form may be natural too but I am not going to buy one. Natural just means that it did not come out of a laboratory. It does not designate a product as safe.

The second question those commercials bring up is, “Is HFCS fine in moderation unlike sugar?” I would like to take on the second part of that claim first. The “Unlike Sugar” comment furthers a weird view the average consumer seems to have. The view that sugar is the devil and the worst thing in creation. Sugar is not the root of all evil, it is the excess sugars that we eat that are dangerous. If we get up in the morning and have fruit loops then chips and fruit roll-up for lunch, and a stack of cookies for dessert with dinner we are in trouble. But if we avoid simple sugars and treats with lots of sugar in them then there is no problem with that. That is called moderation.

There is no debate over the health impacts of simple sugars in our diets. Simple sugars are absorbed easily and hit our blood stream like a wave forcing the body to take emergency action and causes our insulin levels to go crazy just to level off the blood sugar levels. This packages sugars into fats for energy storage and eventually causes our bodies to require the higher levels of insulin to have any effect at all. This is called insulin resistance and is the first step to diabetes.

Now for the first half of the question, “Is HFCS fine in moderation?” The answer is plainly no. Looking at the research we find many examples of how a “High Fructose Diet” (meaning fructose in its free form not in long fibrous chains like in fruit) causes just as many and even more health problems than a similar diet with glucose or table sugar (“sucrose” – glucose and fructose molecules paired together)2, 3, 6, 7. Not only has HFCS been shown to cause insulin resistance and eventually type-2 diabetes just like excess simple sugars 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 but much more severe health conditions like liver and kidney damage and dysfunction1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 and increasing the risk of heart disease4, 5, 6, 8.

So please, always read the ingredients lists on your food. If there is HFCS or if sugar (glucose, maltose, dextrose, pretty much anything ending in -ose) is one of the first five ingredients do not eat it.

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Ben

1. Sowers JR, Whaley-Connell A, and Hayden MR. The Role of Overweight and Obesity in the Cardiorenal Syndrome. Cardiorenal Medicine 2011 1(1):5-12

2. Le MT, Frye RF, Rivard CJ, Cheng J, McFann KK, Segal MS, Johnson RJ, and Johnson JA. Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose on the pharmacokinetics of fructose and acute metabolic and hemodynamic responses in healthy subjects. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental 2011

3. Collison KS, Zaidi MZ, Saleh SM, Makhoul NJ, Inglis A, Burrows J, Araujo JA, and Al-Mohanna FA. Nutrigenomics of hepatic steatosis in a feline model: effect of monosodium glutamate, fructose, and Trans-fat feeding. Genes and Nutrition 2011

4. Stanhope KL. Role of fructose-containing sugars in the epidemics of obesity and metabolic syndrome. Annual Review of Medicine 2012 63:329-43

5. Collino M. High dietary fructose intake: Sweet or bitter life? World Journal of Diabetes 2011 2(6):77-81

6. Stanhope KL, Bremer AA, Medici V, Nakajima K, Ito Y, Nakano T, Chen G, Fong TH,Lee V, Menorca RI, Keim NL, and Havel PJ. Consumption of fructose and high fructose corn syrup increase postprandial triglycerides, LDL-cholesterol, and apolipoprotein-B in young men and women. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 2011 96(10):E1596-605

7. Sheludiakova A, Rooney K, and Boakes RA. Metabolic and behavioural effects of sucrose and fructose/glucose drinks in the rat. European Journal of Nutrition 2011

8. Kretowicz M, Johnson RJ, Ishimoto T, Nakagawa T, and Manitius J. The impact of fructose on renal function and blood pressure. International Journal of Nephrology 2011

9. Collison KS, Zaidi MZ, Saleh SM, Inglis A, Mondreal R, Makhoul NJ, Bakheet R, Burrows J, Milgram NW, and Al-Mohanna FA. Effect of trans-fat, fructose and monosodium glutamate feeding on feline weight gain, adiposity, insulin sensitivity, adipokine and lipid profile. British Journal of Nutrition 2011 Mar 24:1-10


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