Believe it or not, there is a large degree of controversy in the health community as to whether or not high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) any different than consuming sugar, honey, or any of the other sweeteners humans have consumed for decades prior to the 1970s when it was first introduced on the market.
Let’s start off with defining what this evil thing is, HFCS, anyway. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, probably all bad things. But do you know what it really is (besides an evil liquid sweet substance that makes you fat especially your liver, inflames everything in your body, and will likely give you a heart attack in the next 5 years)? Defined, it is derived from corn starch which has been broken down into
Why is it used? Because it’s cheap. It comes from an abundance and renewable source in the agricultural industry – corn. It’s also stable in acidic environments and beverages, making it very easy to use in products. Being that it’s liquid, it’s also easy to pump from delivery vehicles to mixing and storage tanks.
So why the controversy? It’s cheap, it’s easy, seems to be near identical to table sugar, which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose – the substance all other sweeteners are compared to. So why all the media hype? One of the biggest spotlights it has been deemed a demon for is the obesity epidemic. I’ve done as thorough research review and as Harry Truman said, “If you can’t convince them, conf
use them.”And that’s largely where I’m at -sort of.
Here’s why. The vast majority of the studies I read concluded that HFCS is no more to harmful to our health than consuming regular table sugar is. That doesn’t mean it’s good for you, it just means it’s not worse for you than eating added sugars in general. That makes a lot of sense to me because I already know that eating added sugar does more harm that good. What didn’t make sense to me was that some of these articles, like this one from the NIH, while compelling, were funded by Pepsi Co International, Coca Cola, ConAgra Foods, Kraft Foods, Corn Refiners Association, and Weight Watchers. The conclusion was “based on high quality evidence from randomized controlled tria
ls (RCT), systematic reviews and meta-analyses of cohort studies that singling out added sugars as unique culprits for metabolically based diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease appears inconsistent with modern, high quality evidence and is very unlikely to yield health benefits.” In case you forgot, Weight Watchers has a large product line if one and two point cakes, muffins, and other yummy sweet treats to keep you on track with your point count.
And this review, who’s final statement was “it does not appear to be practical to base dietary guidance on selecting or avoiding these specific types of sweeteners,” was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s just hard for me to see beyond the possibility of hidden agendas w
hen companies who have a lot to lose are dumping their money into statements telling the public th
at what they are doing is perfectly safe.
I did find some unbiased research out there though. As of 2004, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that there indeed is evidence that it may have a special connection to the rising obesity rates, particularly because of the overconsumption of sweetened sodas. The conclusion that started this whole controversy was that “the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and gout is also increased with the consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.”
But why would this be? For starters, with the cheap source of sweeteners, the average soda size grew from sixteen ounce bottles to twenty. Even more so, this sugary substance is addicting. W
hen we get a taste of it, we want more. Sweetness is an acquired taste. Ever met a one year old who’s never had candy or cookies? I have and they could care less about it. I met a holistic nutrition doctor once that has two children between the ages of five and ten who have never had sugar of any kind before….and they didn’t want it. In contrast, I’ve met a two year old who’s tasted candy and they will go through great lengths to get it (like pulling up chairs, climbing furniture, hiding behind furniture with said candy, screaming, crying…not that this was my kid or anything.)
In a more recent study in 2013, they concluded similar results (along with increased risk of fatty liver disease) with more astounding statistics – between 1950 and 2000 the soda consumption increased from 10 gallons per year to over 50 gallons per year and from 120 pounds of sugar in 1994 to over 160 pounds of sugar in the 21 st century.
Additionally, fructose can be a nightmare if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. For about one third of sufferers, fructose malabsorption or intolerance may exacerbate symptoms of bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Fructose is naturally found in honey and fruits. But we eat it on the daily in sugary drinks and processed foods – trying to eliminate it can be a challenge. Same goes for those with a corn allergy. It’s becomes a second job to avoid HFCS since it’s now in not only sodas but crackers, cookies, frozen dinners, granola bars, and yogurt.
Lastly, I’ve talked about the hunger regulating hormones, ghrelin and leptin before. There is evidence to suggest that HFCS inhibits insulin secretion thus, the leptin isn’t produced to promote satiety after a meal or a snack full of HFCS. As far as I have found, ghrelin (the hunger producing hormo
ne) isn’t increased, but who cares when you get no full signal while you’re chowing down on a box of doughnuts?
Bottom line: eat it, as with table sugar and all added sugars, in moderation. It is unclear if HFCS is the cause of the rising obesity epidemic and all of the related health issues we are experienc
ing in ourselves and our families, but it is crystal clear that there is a correlation.
What is moderation though? Well, I didn’t find much out there. I know less than 160 pounds per year, but that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. To give you an idea, one 12 ounce can of soda has 40 grams. So consider a plant-based diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and eliminate sweetened beverages. Start there and limit the sweets to special occasions and holidays.
P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.
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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN