High-Fructose Corn Syrup: The Controversy Continues

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Last week (in "A Foray Into Fructose"), we learned how fructose, or fruit sugar, may be linked to certain health conditions, such as high lipid levels, gout, kidney stones, and irritable bowel syndrome. What we haven’t looked at yet, but will this week, is a substance that has just about as bad a reputation as trans fat, or pesticides, or even global warming: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, for short).

HFCS was introduced into the American diet back in the 1970’s. As its name implies, this sweetener is made from corn, and is made up of varying amounts of fructose, depending on whether it’s used in, say, soft drinks or baked goods. HFCS is similar in sweetness to sucrose (table sugar), making it a good choice for food manufacturers.

You may be wondering why a food manufacturer would use HFCS over regular sugar. Well, there are several reasons for this:

  • HFCS is generally cheaper to use than table sugar.
  • HFCS prolongs the shelf life of food products.
  • HFCS maintains moisture and freshness.

So why is a pretty innocuous-sounding substance at the source of so much controversy?

HFCS and Obesity
Over the past several years, the media has hyped up stories linking the rise in obesity in the U.S. to a high intake of HFCS, primarily in the form of sweetened beverages. According to the American Dietetic Association, the claim is that fructose alters “hormonal patterns” that promote appetite and storage of fat in the body, compared to regular sugar and other types of sweeteners.

No one’s arguing that HFCS is a source of additional, empty calories in the diet and that we need to cut down on our intake. About half of the added sugar intake of the average American comes from HFCS. And soft drink intake has significantly increased over the past 50 years. What’s the main ingredient in soft drinks? HFCS. Therefore, with obesity rates climbing, and soft drink intake climbing, it’s not too hard to see how the two might be linked. However, the catch is that no good research has been done proving that HFCS somehow alters metabolism to increase appetite and promote fat storage.

The causes of obesity are complex and likely multifold. It would be easier if we could just point the finger at consuming too much HFCS, or too much fat, or our inactive lifestyles. Those are very likely culprits, but they aren’t the only ones. At this point, there isn’t enough credible evidence that HFCS is a cause of obesity.

HFCS and Diabetes
Last year, researchers at Rutgers University concluded that HFCS may contribute to the development of diabetes in both adults and children. They looked at 11 different sodas that contained HFCS and found high levels of reactive carbonyls in them. Reactive carbonyls are substances that can cause tissue damage, are found in high levels in people with diabetes, and may be at least partially responsible for inducing diabetes. They also discovered that adding antioxidants from tea to these beverages reduced the number of reactive carbonyls and that these tea substances may help reduce the “toxic” effect of soft drinks.

You can imagine that the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and other food industry members have hotly disputed all the so-called “evidence” that HFCS causes health problems. While the evidence may not yet be strong enough to truly support claims of obesity and diabetes, it’s a wise idea to go easy on foods that contain HFCS. Here’s a partial list of foods to be wary of:

  • Most sweetened sodas and other soft drinks
  • Some fruit juice drinks (i.e., fruit juice “cocktails”)
  • Bottled pasta sauce
  • Ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • Cereals
  • Canned soup
  • Canned fruit in syrup
  • Frozen entrées

As always, read food labels and find out, in addition to carb and fat grams, what kinds of ingredients are in your food. Try to choose foods that are as unrefined as possible, as often as possible. Your body will thank you.

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