Sweet But Not Safe
By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Here's the sticky truth about the sweetener found in everything from soda to salad dressing.
If you’ve turned on your TV recently, you’ve probably noticed that high-fructose corn syrup appears to have a new press agent. I especially love the commercial where two mothers are talking and one questions the other about serving some sweetened fruit punch to her kids. “That stuff’s got high-fructose corn syrup in it,” the first mother says. “And you know what they say about that.” To which the second mother replies, “What? That it’s natural and made from corn? And that in moderation, it’s perfectly fine?” The first mother quickly changes the subject.

Clever commercial. And totally misleading.

First Things First
In the beginning there was plain old table sugar, also known by its scientific name, sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (di meaning two, and saccharide meaning sugar). That means it’s actually a blend of two simple (mono) saccharides, in this case glucose and fructose. Take a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose, link them with a chemical bond, and presto, you’ve got yourself a molecule of sucrose. Put a bunch of those sucrose molecules together in a bowl, place the bowl on the table at the local diner with a little spoon in it, and you’re in business.

Now, it’s pretty much a given that high intake of sugar is bad for you, and a list of all reasons why would pretty much fill this column, so let’s save that for another day. What’s interesting is that a fair amount of research has been done investigating exactly which of the two components of sugar is worse for you: glucose or fructose. And the hands-down winner in the this-stuff-is-bad category is fructose.

Don’t get me wrong. Fructose as a naturally occurring fruit sugar—found for example, in an apple—is absolutely fine. But the difference between fructose in an apple and fructose in a soda is the difference between a beautiful fur coat on a wild fox and that same fur on the back of a lady at the opera. It’s gorgeous on its original owner (the fox). On the woman? Not so much.

When fructose is found in its original setting (such as an apple or a berry), it’s surrounded with healthful nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber. When it’s extracted and made into a liquid sweetener, it’s a nightmare.

Fructose: The Not-so-Sweet News
Fructose been shown in studies to produce insulin resistance in animals. (Insulin resistance is a central feature of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.) More than any other kind of sugar, fructose raises triglycerides—a serious risk factor for heart disease. In 2000, Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto fed a high-fructose diet to Syrian golden hamsters, rodents that have a fat metabolism similar to ours. In a matter of weeks, the hamsters developed both elevated triglycerides and insulin resistance. Fructose also contributes mightily to creating new fat on your body.

In the “old” days, sugar—table sugar that is, plain old sucrose—was expensive. Maybe not for the average Joe—but for food manufacturers wanting to sweeten products, it was definitely a high-ticket ingredient.

Then, because of sugar tariffs and corn subsidies, manufacturers were highly motivated to find a solution to the problem of expensive sugar. Enter high-fructose corn syrup. Take a subsidized crop (such as corn), perform a bunch of chemical operations on it, and voilà, you had something that was even sweeter than sucrose at a fraction of the cost and could be added to virtually everything on the table, making those items even more “delicious” and desirable—and of course, moving more product.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Chemically speaking, high-fructose corn syrup really isn’t that different from table sugar (sucrose). High-fructose corn syrup—at least the most common kind, the kind in soft drinks—is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. It’s not a huge difference from the 50/50 mix in plain old sugar. The problem is that it’s everywhere.

“The low cost of high-fructose corn syrup allowed the explosion of 20-ounce sodas, Super Big Gulps, and the like to happen,” says C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD, a research scientist and USDA nutritionist. “Because sucrose was quite expensive, for years, sodas were limited to the 12-ounce can. We’ ve also had an explosion of candies, bakery items, and ice cream novelties that would have been just too costly if they were all made with sugar, but now because of high-fructose corn syrup, are much cheaper to produce.”

So no matter how you cut the high-fructose corn syrup–sweetened cake, we’re now consuming more fructose than ever. And refined fructose—whether we get it from table sugar or from the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup—is bad news for your health.

When the Corn Refiners Association fights back with their pro-high-fructose corn syrup ads, it seems to come down to two arguments: one, it’s no worse than sugar (OK, maybe, but that’s like saying Salems are no worse than Marlboros), and two, it’s natural because it’s made from corn. Maybe so, but so is ethanol, and I’m not drinking that either.




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