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How bad is High Fructose Corn Syrup? - 2 Columns


Dear Dr. Blonz,
You are the voice of reason. What do you think of high-fructose corn syrup? Is it worse for us than regular sugar? RF, Walnut Creek, CA.

Dear RF,
Human biochemistry is a tapestry of interwoven chemical reactions. The foods we eat in our diet can have different effects depending on how much we eat, the other foods consumed during the day and the circumstances under which a particular food is consumed. Eating is not complicated, but how a particular component affects the body is not always straightforward.

I bring this up because there are definite issues related to the excess consumption of certain foods, whether they are carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins or minerals. The idea of balance may seem boring, but it holds considerable sway over our life and well-being. Consider the sweeteners: Fructose is about 1.4 times as sweet as glucose. Sucrose (table sugar) is a 1:1 mixture of glucose and fructose, and the two are bound together in the sucrose molecule. Interestingly enough, honey is also a 1:1 blend, but in this case, the glucose and fructose are not bound together. Honey tastes sweeter than sucrose because you can get the full benefit of fructose's extra sweetness.

Corn syrup starts as corn "starch," which is a long chain of glucose molecules bound together. The first step in making the corn syrup is separating the individual glucose molecules, and this is done using an enzyme. It is a process similar to what goes into our digestive system when we eat starch. The next step uses a specialized enzyme that converts glucose into fructose. Not all the glucose gets converted, and the percentage of fructose in the final product depends on its intended use. The typical corn syrup you find at the store is about 55 percent fructose (45 percent glucose), which is similar to honey. It is called a "high" fructose corn syrup (HFCS) because standard corn syrup is mostly glucose.

A study in the July 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at whether HFCS might not satisfy like other sweeteners, which could then lead to excess consumption (and an increased risk of obesity), but it found no differences between the corn syrup and sucrose. In the same journal in May 2008, there is a look at the effects of beverages sweetened with HFCS, sucrose, fructose and glucose. The study reported no differences in a number of physiological measures, including 24-hour blood glucose, insulin and triglyceride levels.

With an HFCS you get more sweetness per unit weight. It is also less expensive than cane or beet sugar, which explains why it's found in so many processed foods. Using a sweeter sweetener means fewer calories for the equivalent level of sweetness. HFCS is simply another sweetener, and I consider it to be no worse than regular sugar. The issue with a sweetener, whether it is sucrose, HFCS or even honey, relates to the level of consumption. The foods in which high levels of this sweetener are used are not the types that should overwhelm our diets, anyway.

Don't be afraid of the stuff as having some dark effect on the body; just don't overdo it. It's that simple.

Dear Dr. Blonz,
Many thanks for your comments on high-fructose corn syrup. So often, I hear from my food-fadist friends that it is only slightly below rat poison with respect to health. I have read elsewhere that some commercial users of HFCS were originally motivated by the cost/sweetness relationship of the product, particularly with the tariff on imported sucrose and its effect on U.S. sugar prices. Finally, your reminder about striving for balance in our food consumption and its beneficial effect is refreshing and well stated. JF. Concord, CA.

Dear JF,
I have been following the topic for some time, waiting for the right question. The body is thrown off course when it is overloaded with sweets. When fructose is a player in a too-sweet diet, many biochemical shifts begin to occur.

A review article in the October 2007 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. The paper suggests that high intakes of fructose are likely to be playing a role, and that certain subgroups, such as African-Americans, are particularly susceptible. The paper correctly points out, however, that there are also illnesses associated with ingesting too much salt and protein.

The issue is not so much that people should run away from high-fructose corn syrup. The issue is, where are they are they running to? Bypassing fructose in favor of an artificial sweetener is not the answer. The way to get ahead of the game is to cast off as many sweetened processed foods as possible and get with the real.

Dr Blonz Do you have a question that involves nutrition, health and wellness? Dr. Ed Blonz holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in nutrition, and has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of nutrition, foods and health. He is the author of seven books and writes the nationally syndicated column, "On Nutrition," available through Universal Press Syndicate.

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Copyright Ed Blonz, Ph.D.