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Why High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Worse Than Sugar…And Why It’s Not

Posted Nov 03 2008 4:04am

I made the case before that high-fructose corn syrup really isn’t much worse for you than sugar. Further, I recently discussed two of the commercials from the corn lobby attempting to prove that high-fructose corn syrup is okay in moderation. Let’s open the book once again and look at high-fructose corn syrup again.

Why It’s Worse Than You’ve Heard
Because of the way that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made, it’s sugar molecules are different than less highly processed sugars, including plain ol’ table sugar. In table sugar, the glucose and fructose molecules are paired in 1-to-1 fashion, bonded together. When sucrose enters the stomach, the glucose and fructose molecules are cleaved and sent on their way to either the bloodstream (for glucose) or to the liver (fructose).

HFCS on the other hand has unbound glucose and fructose molecules. While I’m not exactly sure of the mechanism, these unbound sugars hit the bloodstream as reactive compounds known as carbonyls.

Reactive carbonyls, which have been linked to tissue damage and complications of diabetes, are elevated in the blood of people with diabetes. A single can of soda, however, has five times that concentration of reactive carbonyls. Old-fashioned table sugar, on the other hand, has no reactive carbonyls because its fructose and glucose molecules are “bound” and therefore stable, unlike the “unbound” molecules of HFCS.

Sounds like lots of tissue damage from just a single soda.

Fructose and Weight Gain/Loss
While we know that we should watch how much sugar of all types we’re eating, too much fructose, in and of itself, is a bad thing. Fructose requires processing in the liver, as opposed to glucose which can pass directly into the bloodstream for energy or storage. The liver tends to turn fructose into triglycerides. But why does this matter? Too much fructose can lead to leptin resistance.

Other studies have shown that elevated triglycerides impair the transport of leptin across the blood brain barrier. The researchers hypothesize that the elevation in triglycerides produced by fructose prevented leptin from reaching the brain. If leptin does not reach the brain, the brain will not send out the signal to stop eating.

So we’re elevating triglycerides, a major risk factor for heart disease, which in turn keeps the brain from recognizing the “stop eating” signal. When the body stops responding to leptin, appetite runs rampant.

Further, fat storage is increased after fructose ingestion.

The researchers found that lipogenesis, the process by which sugars are turned into body fat, increased significantly when as little as half the glucose was replaced with fructose. Fructose given at breakfast also changed the way the body handled the food eaten at lunch. After fructose consumption, the liver increased the storage of lunch fats that might have been used for other purposes.

So let’s put two and two together…first, too much fructose decreases the body’s response to leptin’s signal to stop eating. Second, fructose increases fat storage. So you eat more and the body stores more fat. Any wonder why the world is getting fatter?

I think it’s obvious that high-fructose corn syrup is some pretty insidious stuff. Contrary to what the Corn Refiners Association wants you to believe, it’s far from natural. The process to make HFCS is complicated and chemical-laden; cane or beet sugar production is slightly cleaner, mainly requiring boiling water, a lime bath, and a centrifuge. One could probably do that at home if desired. Agave nectar is produced in a similar way. Honey is the least processed, at least by human hands.


You say “toe-may-toe”, I say “Greek salad”

Why It’s Still Pretty Similar To Other Sugars
Now I’m going to swing the pendulum the other way. Nutritionally, HFCS and sugar, honey, or agave nectar are identical at 4 calories per gram. So there’s not much of value there to demonize HFCS. But what about the above data on fructose and weight gain? Surely high-fructose corn syrup exacerbates that, right?

Recall what I’ve said before, the “high” in high-fructose corn syrup refers to the amount of fructose in relation to regular corn syrup, not as an absolute. Looking at the percentage of fructose in common sweeteners, including the “natural” sugars like agave nectar, honey, and evaporated cane juice, here’s what we see:

Fructose Comparison of Common Sweeteners

Sweetener% Fructose
HFCS-5555%
Sucrose50%
Honey52.7%
Agave Nectar56-92%
Evaporated Cane Juice42.5-47.5%

Notice anything? They are all about the same in fructose content. So from that standpoint, HFCS isn’t doing any more fructose-related damage than the others. In fact, agave nectar is looking downright bad on this table. Obviously replacing HFCS in products with sucrose or cane juice isn’t going to do much for overall fructose intake. Further, since fructose is processed in the liver, it doesn’t elicit the insulin spike that glucose does. So trading fructose for glucose is simply trading one evil for another (the lesser of two weevils?).

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because your organic cookies don’t have HFCS, they’re just fine to eat. Organic junk is still junk and is still destroying your body. The only way to cut your fructose consumption in a healthy way is to stop eating sugar in general.

Stop Being Wishy-Washy; What’s Your Take?
Okay, so now I’ve said HFCS is worse than sugar and then followed that up by saying it’s not really much worse. What gives? Here’s my opinion on the whole ordeal:

  • High-fructose corn syrup is nasty stuff.
  • Too much sugar in general is nasty stuff, even if it’s honey.
  • But other than excessive carbonyls, HFCS is probably not doing much more damage than regular sugar.
  • Keep your sugar intake low and the whole issue is rather moot.
  • Use honey when you use a sweetener and use it sparingly in your diet overall.

And I’ll reiterate that fruit is not bad. The overall level of fructose in fruits is low, even though the percentage of fructose is high. Cut out the processed foods and concentrated sources of sugar and get your sweetness from berries, melons, and other fruits.


Sweet summertime deliciousness

How do you feel about this? Do you think HFCS is vastly worse than other forms of sugar? Is there a healthy alternative to HFCS or table sugar?

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