Last month, I saw an interesting commercial where a mother was throwing a birthday party for her five-year old. She had a fruit drink that was sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and another mother scolded her for serving it. She replied that it was ok, because high-fructose corn syrup is all natural and made from corn, so what could be so bad?
Up to now, my only qualm with high-fructose corn syrup was that it is being added in higher quantities than necessary to so many packaged and bottled foods. Excess consumption of calories and sugar is a serious issue for Americans and probably one of the factors responsible for the rapid rise of obesity over the last 30 years. Americans eat around 150 pounds of sugar a year – in 1970, it was only 120. So that means the average American is eating 6 cups of sugar a week, mostly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
So What is High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Why Could It Be Harmful?
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener that is found in many packaged and fast foods – everything from crackers to cookies, ice cream and jarred sauces. It originates from corn syrup that has undergone enzymatic processing to increase its fructose content, and is then mixed with pure corn syrup (100% glucose), becoming a high-fructose corn syrup in the process.
As it is a liquid, HFCS has become popular with food manufacturers because it is easier to blend and transport – besides, it is somewhat cheaper than table sugar due to corn subsidies and sugar tariffs. So next, I asked my husband, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, what happens in the body when we eat lots of fructose versus other types of sugar.
As a liquid, HFCS has become popular with food manufacturers because it is easier to blend and transport.
“I prefer to talk about the research out there” he said, forever the scientist. Enter clinical researchers such as Richard Johnson, the J. Robert Cade professor of medicine and chief of the division of nephrology, hypertension and transplantation in the University of Florida College of Medicine.
“We recognize that obesity has multiple causes, including eating too much and exercising too little, but we think a missing piece of the obesity puzzle is fructose intake. It’s not fructose itself that is the problem, but eating too much of it.”
Small amounts of fructose – for example from eating fruit while maintaining a healthy diet – are ok, because your body can convert small amounts of fructose into glucose. Here’s why this is important:
Recent research from researchers at Johns Hopkins University has uncovered that the human body treats glucose and fructose differently – when consuming glucose, two things happen:
For starters, insulin is released from the pancreas, prompting the body to balance out the glucose levels in the bloodstream. And secondly, glucose is signalling the brain that sufficient energy is available, causing the release of satiety hormones that make you feel full.
By comparison, fructose is not able to enter the brain – so the brain doesn’t respond to your fructose energy intake and in response, your body never gets the signal that your stomach has been filled. You just keep eating and eating and while your stomach expands, you never get the neurological sensation that you’re full. A perfect setup to becoming overweight and obese.
The above graph shows how overweight & obesity rates (1980: 15%; 2000: 28%) rose simultaneously with the increased use of high fructose corn syrup in the 1980s and 1990s (5 vs. 45 gram/capita/day). A related graph also indicates that ten years after the increase in obesity, there’s an increase in diabetes cases. Many experts, including Richard Johnson, say that it’s hard to argue with those correlations.
Obesity, Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
If you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, chances are that you’ve heard of the medical term insulin resistance syndrome or metabolic syndrome. Both of these terms describe a combination of health problems that have a common link – an increased risk of early heart disease.
The cluster of medical conditions that make up metabolic syndrome places a person at risk of developing type-2 diabetes and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). It is estimated that 70 to 80 million Americans already have one of the metabolic syndrome diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, or heart disease.
So how do you go from obesity to diabetes? It all starts in the pancreas, one of the organs associated with the digestion of food. It has two primary tasks:
- Secrete digestive enzymes into the small intestine to break down food
- Secrete insulin in response to elevated glucose (blood sugar) levels. This hormone causes sugars to be removed from the blood stream, either for direct energy consumption or to be stored in the form of fat.
People who consume persistently too many calories tend to have high glucose levels, that can not be reduced by further insulin secretion. As a result, the body stops or reduces insulin release, and people face insulin-desensitization.
Persistently high glucose levels then change many other biochemical processes in the body, the ultimate result being diabetes. Further downstream events also reduce circulation, so that less nutrients and antioxidants reach the extremities – making amputation of legs necessary in many cases.
So do yourself a favor and combat excess weight and obesity early on in your life. By addressing these in time, you’ll not only feel and look healthier, you may also escape the guaranteed onset of diabetes with all its associated complications.
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- Is the corn surplus responsible for the way American’s eat? Read more from the brilliant writer and food expert, Michael Pollan.
- Read more about the facts of corn sweeteners by Marion Nestle.
- Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity, George A. Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry M Popkin, Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2004, 79, 537- 43.
- Could the simple sugar responsible for putting the sweet in everything from bananas to root beer be the missing link in understanding what puts the fat on a person’s thighs? Richard Johnson reviews the evidence in his new book The Sugar Fix: The High-Fructose Fallout That Is Making You Fat And Sick