The Dark Side of High Fructose Corn Syrup

The Dark Side of High Fructose Corn Syrup
Chances are good that you have eaten high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) at least once this week. It is hard to avoid.  In fact, virtually all foods that contain caloric sweeteners sold in a regular supermarket, including soft drinks, fruit drinks, canned fruits, dairy desserts, flavored yogurts, baked goods, cereals, and jellies, are sweetened with this inexpensive corn-derived sugar. There are obvious reasons why the food industry has embraced HFCS but recent news may jeopardize its status as a safe additive. This evidence comes as no surprise to health enthusiasts who have long suspected this unnatural sweetener.

The prevalence of HFCS in the American food supply has steadily increased over the last couple of decades. Modifying regular corn syrup with enzymes makes a sweeter corn syrup with more fructose. HFCS is an inexpensive product (11 cents per pound) that blends well in foods and has a long shelf life.  In 1970, HFCS represented less than 1% of all caloric sweeteners. Today, due in large part to the growth of the soft drink industry, HFCS accounts for 42% of all added caloric sweeteners. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (May, 2004), use of HFCS in soft drinks increased 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990. The average American consumes over 130 calories daily of HFCS (roughly eight teaspoons). What’s more astounding is that 20% of the population consumes over 300 calories each day from HFCS or about 15% of their total daily calorie requirement. 

For years, proponents of a whole foods diet have pointed the finger at HFCS, labeling it unhealthy primarily because it is a refined sugar. Critics say these empty calories are a risk factor for diabetes by placing an excess burden on the insulin-secreting pancreas. Another concern is that HFCS provides no essential nutrients. The body needs specific nutrients to function properly; those consuming several hundred calories of HFCS each day are often overfed and undernourished. Now scientists are pointing their finger at HFCS, saying it is unhealthy because of its high fructose content. The body metabolizes fructose differently than sucrose (table sugar) or glucose - a factor that may cause obesity and other health problems.  For instance, too much fructose in the diet favors the synthesis of new fat stores, a process called de novo lipogenesis. To make matters worse, unlike the sugar glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or trigger leptin production. Insulin and leptin secretion are key hormones that help the body regulate food intake. Thus too much fructose as HFCS may cause us to gain weight by stimulating fat synthesis and interfering with the body’s fullness signals. Excess fructose intake may also disturb liver function, although this disease risk needs to be studied further.

Even though fruit and fruit juices contain fructose, they do not pose the same problem as HFCS when consumed in moderation. Excess consumption of any sugar is problematic, but unlike HFCS and other refined sugars, fruit and fruit juices provide an array of beneficial nutrients that support carbohydrate metabolism. Because humans have eaten fruit for thousands of years, it makes sense that it is a healthy food for us. The food experiments that are “new” are more likely to pose health problems.

How quickly will food manufacturers phase out HFCS and replace it with other sweeteners? It’s hard to say.  Expect it to be replaced with non-caloric and low-cost sweeteners. Even natural food stores are not free from HFCS. In July of 2004, Earth Fare, a chain of nine natural products supermarkets based in Asheville, N.C., announced that it would no longer carry products made with high fructose corn syrup. Earth Fare Director of Purchasing David Bowles says, “Over a third of our sodas and energy bars will have to be removed, some of them best sellers.” The solution for the natural foods shopper is to look for products sweetened with natural sugars such as honey, fruit juice concentrates, organic cane sugar, or even unrefined cane sugar. Stevia is another option. Try adding stevia (a natural non-nutritive sweetener) to coffee and tea. Avoid synthetic sweeteners, even those advertised as being produced “naturally,” as time has consistently shown that these substances are not healthy shortcuts.

Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD