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What should high fructose corn syrup make you mad?

Posted Aug 24 2013 12:00am

High-fructose corn syrup is the first ingredient of this popular pancake syrup, after water. Photo: Sally Kneidel
What is high-fructose corn syrup? Is it really dangerous to your health? Lots of health professionals and researchers say it is. Should you avoid it completely? Science writer Laura Bell of Science News just published a great article summarizing some of the latest buzz about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). New research on its health effects is not entirely clear-cut, and those effects may depend on the genetics of the particular consumer. But Bell's article convinced me to minimize my family's consumption of HFCS, and avoid it whenever possible.

Lookin' in the frig...

Just 5 minutes ago, I poked around my family's kitchen looking for HFCS in our own foods, and quickly found 3 things in the frig that have it: ketchup, pancake syrup (it's the first ingredient after water), and chocolate syrup (HFCS is the first ingredient). As you probably know, ingredients are listed on food packages in descending order of their relative proportions in the food.

High-fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in soft drinks, sweet and savory sauces, fast foods, baked goods, dairy products, and many other packaged foods.

What is HFCS?

High fructose corn syrup was developed by the corn industry, which is always looking for new products from corn, because corn subsidies make corn so cheap and thus so competitive in the marketplace. Food scientists at the Corn Projects Refining Company discovered a way to convert glucose from corn starch into a different sugar called fructose, not naturally found in corn. The regular corn syrup, containing glucose or maltose, was already on the market. But fructose has the advantage of being sweeter than corn syrup.

After tooling around with this fructose created from corn, the corn researchers came up with a new highly-marketable corn-based sweetener: high-fructose corn syrup. It's fructose blended with glucose. Although not as sweet as straight fructose, it's still sweeter than corn syrup and at least as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). It can be even sweeter than table sugar, depending on the ratio of fructose to glucose in the blend. HFCS offers numerous mass-production benefits: it's not only cheap and sweet, but also very stable in foods, and easy to store and transport in liquid form. Voila! A golden ticket to profits for food corporations!

Why are consumers and medical professionals concerned about HFCS?

For all its benefits for producers, HFCS is laden with threats to public health. For one thing, the cheap price of HFCS has led many companies to sweeten products that had not previously been sweetened, thus increasing the daily caloric intake of many Americans. In his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss makes a convincing case that the food industry has intentionally hooked the American public on sweet, salty, fatty foods to increase sales, resulting in serious blows to our health. HFCS has provided a primary tool for hooking us.

Of course, health professionals are concerned about over-consumption of all sweeteners that are high in calories. But HFCS has its very own set of red flags, not shared by other sweeteners.

Four of the biggest concerns about HFCS are possible effects on the liver, the heart, abdominal fat, and the kidneys.

Liver damage?

Fructose from HFCS behaves differently in the human body than glucose or sucrose. When you eat regular corn syrup or table sugar, the sugars don''t move into the liver unless the liver needs sugar for energy. But fructose seeps into the liver, whether or not the liver needs it. Laura Bell summarizes it this way, "When fructose is consumed some of it always ends up in the liver, where it may be packaged...for long term storage as fat. It may promote fatty liver disease." A researcher at UC San Francisco (Robert Lustig) compares HFCS to "alcohol without the buzz" because of its potential to cause liver damage. Miriam Vos at Emory University School of Medicine says certain people are probably more susceptible to liver damage by HFCS due to genetics, just as some are more vulnerable to cancer from tobacco or the effect of salt on blood pressure.

You may know that fructose is a naturally-occurring sugar in fruits, sometimes called fruit sugar. But not to worry. Fruit sugar does not behave the same way in the body as the fructose in HFCS and is not dangerous to the liver.

Heart disease?

A number of studies suggest that HFCS can raise the triglyceride level in the blood, which is a well-known risk factor in heart disease.

Abdominal fat?

Laura Bell cites studies that indicate fructose is more likely than glucose alone to cause an increase in the amount of fat in the abdomen.

Kidney trouble

HFCS may increase uric acid in the blood, a risk factor for kidney disease.

See Laura Bell's article for a more substantive review of health concerns.

The biggest danger

To some consumers, all the bad press on HFCS has made table sugar and other sweeteners look good in comparison. Many products are now labeled as "made with natural sugar" or "real sugar." And that can be dangerous, leading consumers to think they're harmless. In small amounts, maybe so. But a 2012 study cited by Bell found that 75% of packaged foods and drinks contain added sweeteners. Our soaring consumption of calories has led to national epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as I think we all know by now. Switching from HFCS to sugar or corn syrup is not going to fix that. Sugar, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup can all contribute too many calories, and in that regard, none are "harmless."

In sum, limiting caloric intake altogether may be more important than avoiding particular sweeteners. Of course, we can choose to take care of our families by doing both - limiting calories and avoiding HFCS. That's my plan.

I'm mad

My "angry" radar is out for HFCS. Some food companies are now labeling it as "corn sugar" to confuse consumers who are trying to avoid it.  Such tactics make me mad.  It's one more example of deceptive labeling by giant food corporations, like the "made with real juice" labels on concoctions that are 5% juice.  Or the popular "All Natural" label which isn't regulated and means nothing.  I don’t like being manipulated by corporations for the sake of executive salaries and shareholder profits.  It happens a lot these days. When it affects my family's health, that really gets me steamed.
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