High-Fructose Corn Syrup — Big Problem or Just Another Sweetener?

High-­‐fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is ubiquitous in the American diet, and unless you make a concerted effort to avoid the stuff, your child consumes it in everything from soda to fast food to the convenient prepared snacks and juice boxes you tuck into backpacks and leave in the pantry for after school. The debate over the health effects of HFCS is intense, with the corn industry claiming that it’s essentially identical to table sugar, and healthier food companies scrambling to reformulate products so that they no longer contain the sweetener. Who’s right? Is HFCS the dietary disaster some scientists claim, or is the corn industry correct in saying it’s table sugar by another name? Should you particularly avoid feeding your child HFCS, or are all sweeteners equally unhealthy?

Obesity rates among children and adolescents are on the rise in the United States, with a disturbing 17% of America’s youth affected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As obesity among the young has soared, so have rates of type 2 diabetes — so much so that the disorder, which was once known as “adult-­‐onset diabetes,” had to be renamed. Because the American obesity epidemic picked up steam right around the time American consumption of HFCS increased dramatically, studies including Bray et al. have suggested that the HFCS might be to blame.

The corn industry vigorously opposes such accusations, however, on the grounds that HFCS isn’t much different from table sugar. Table sugar, formally known as sucrose, consists of two smaller sugar molecules — glucose and fructose — chemically bonded together. When you eat sucrose, your body digests it into its glucose and fructose components, and you absorb these and use them for energy. Too much sugar — or any other energy-­‐providing nutrient — in your blood, and your cells begin to convert the excess into fat. It’s therefore completely true to say that too much of any sugar can lead to obesity. With regard to chemical makeup, sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS-­‐55, the most common of the HFCS formulations, is 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% larger sugar molecules (White 2008). In the end, based purely upon composition, there are significant chemical differences between table sugar and HFCS.

Two new studies particularly underscore the differences between HFCS and other calorie-­‐containing sweeteners, including table sugar. In the first of these, researchers determined that rats drinking sweetened water (sweeteners included fructose, glucose, sucrose, and HFCS) didn’t adjust the calories of rat chow they ate to account for the additional calories they were taking in (Light et al 2009). While not necessarily an indictment of HFCS in particular, it’s certainly a good argument against sweetened beverages in general. Additionally, however, the rats drinking HFCS-­‐sweetened water gained more weight than any of the other rats, despite the fact that they didn’t take in more total calories than the other rats drinking sweetened water. This demonstrates that HFCS can promote weight gain to a greater extent than other sweeteners per calorie consumed.

In the second study, rats fed HFCS and rat chow gained more weight —especially in the abdominal region, which is particularly unhealthy — than those fed table sugar and rat chow (Bocarsly et al 2010). These findings particularly impressed researchers because the HFCS-­consuming rats actually managed to gain more weight on fewer total sugar calories than the table sugar-­consuming rats. This suggests that HFCS doesn’t just promote weight gain more than table sugar does, it actually promotes the most dangerous kind.

Science Bottom Line:* Evidence suggests that too many foods with added sweeteners increase the risk of obesity, and that this is particularly true of sweetened beverages (like sodas and juice drinks). HFCS appears to be especially problematic, because it encourages the body to put on weight to a greater extent than other sweeteners on a calorie-­‐for-­‐calorie basis.
Do you worry about HFCS and other additives in your food? What do you do to encourage your children to eat a healthy diet?

 

References:

Bocarsly et al. High-­‐fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2010 Nov;97(1):101-­‐6.

Bray et al. Consumption of high-­‐fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Apr;79(4):537-­‐43.

Light et al. The type of caloric sweetener added to water influences weight gain, fat mass, and reproduction in growing Sprague-­‐Dawley female rats. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2009 Jun;234(6):651-­‐61.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Overweight and Obesity Data and Statistics. Accessed 11 Sept 2011.

White, JL. Straight talk about high-­‐fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:1716S–21S.

*The “Science Bottom Line” at the end of each article is not intended as medical advice. It is merely my analysis of one or more papers referenced in a given post.

**”SquintMom’s Decision,” likewise, is not intended as medical advice. It’s merely what I do in my own home, based upon the results of my analysis of the information available.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Megyn @MinimalistMommi
    Apr 12, 2012 @ 21:05:07

    We stay away from HFCS (and a number of other ingredients like hydrogenated oils, TBHQ, BHT, etc.) like it’s the plague! We do have one advantage (?) that our oldest is allergic to corn, so we HAVE to ensure there is no HFCS. I think the other big debate on this matter, which wasn’t discussed, is that corn is a big GM crop, and many try and avoid GMO’s at all cost. In an odd twist, my nutritionist told me that agave syrup acts similarly to other sugars and HFCS when used in baking, but retains its low-glycemic properties when added to room temp. or cold foods. I thought that was fascinating because agave is touted as the new savior from HFCS in baking, but may really not be much better.

    I’m interested to see what happens in the future with HFCS, but I’m even more interested in the faux sugars, like Splenda and aspartame, as I’ve read that can actually be more damaging than HFCS and sucrose. Great info as always! Thanks 🙂

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 08:20:01

      Staying away from HFCS is great, but…your oldest being allergic to corn isn’t a reason to do so. HFCS is so highly processed and purified that it doesn’t contain any of the proteins from the original corn, which means there’s nothing in it for your child to be allergic to. Still, if it keeps you from using HFCS or gives you a justification that you can use when telling your kids why they can’t have soda, that’s awesome!

      Reply

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