SO WHAT’S THE STORY RE HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP?
Is high-fructose corn syrup worse for you than sugar? Researchers at Princeton University think so. But the American Medical Association and most dietitians say no. AOL Health contributor and nutritionist Victoria Stein examines the issue.
Before we delve into the debate, let’s review some basic chemistry. Sugar and HFCS have the same chemical structure. The main difference is that HFCS is manufactured from corn syrup (primarily glucose), which undergoes enzymatic processing to increase the fructose content and is then mixed with glucose. Pure sugar is also composed of glucose and fructose but in marginally different concentrations. Both are calorie dense (with about 16 per teaspoon) with no nutrients.
Thanks to corn subsidies, HFCS has become a cheap alternative to sugar and is often added to processed foods and soft drinks — substances that offer little nutritional value and, when consumed in excess, contribute to weight gain. But whether HFCS has distinct adverse health effects is less obvious.
Critics believe HFCS plays a direct role in obesity by disrupting normal metabolic functions. According to a recently published Princeton study, rats fed a diet rich in HFCS accumulated more belly fat and had higher levels of circulating triglycerides (i.e., fat) — both of which are factors in metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease — than their sugar-fed peers. However, a number of nutrition experts dispute these findings, suggesting that the data produced inconsistent results. Previous studies have shown that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose and excessive amounts of fructose interfere with appetite-regulating hormones and lead to increased fat accumulation. But HFCS is not any higher in fructose than table sugar — both are about 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. And an excess of either is unhealthy.
The HFCS Image Makeover
HFCS has become the latest health villain, and consumers have begun to demand that manufacturers remove it from popular processed foods. Starbucks has eliminated HFCS and trans fats from all of its products, and PepsiCo introduced a “throwback” version of Pepsi and Mountain Dew that replaced HFCS with sugar.
Meanwhile, the Corn Refiners Association is busy trying to give HFCS an image makeover. In 2008, the CRA launched a multimillion-dollar media campaign with the goal of destigmatizing and educating consumers about HFCS.
The ads all play upon a similar theme: one character scolding another for using HFCS but unable to come up with a reason why. After the first character trips over his words for a few seconds, the other jumps in to correct him: “What do they say? That it’s made from corn, nutritionally the same as sugar, and fine in moderation”.
Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, wants to help consumers make informed decisions.
“It’s always been calories in, calories out, and singling out any one ingredient or food or beverage in our overall diet only misleads consumers,” she says. “If we single out any element of the food supply and say if you just stop consuming this — whatever this is — it suggests to people that they’ll get skinny. We all know that’s very misleading and not helpful.”
How HFCS and Sugar Can Hurt Your Health
What we do know is that as excessive sugar intake (in any form) increases, so does risk of diabetes and heart disease. We also know that liquids do not register the same way as solid food, and people rarely compensate for those extra calories by eating less. As people drink more sugar-sweetened beverages, they gain more weight and, as a result, are at a greater risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the main source of added sugar and the leading source of calories in our diet. When added to drinks, all sweeteners — including natural ones like brown sugar, sugar in the raw, agave syrup and honey — contribute empty calories. Since 1980, calorie intake has increased by an average of 150 to 300 calories per day with about half of those calories coming from liquids — sugar-sweetened beverages in particular. During the same period, there has been no change in physical activity levels. Simply put, Americans are eating more and exercising the same.
The American Heart Association recommends Americans limit their sugar intake to half of their discretionary calorie allowance — about 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men (or about five and nine teaspoons respectively). To put that in perspective, one 12-ounce can of Pepsi contains 150 calories and about eight teaspoons of added sugar. But it’s worth noting that the same amount of orange juice has 165 calories and more than eight teaspoons of sugar, albeit in its natural form. If you’re looking to add vitamins and minerals, the OJ is the smarter choice, but if weight maintenance is your goal, you should steer clear of both. When it comes to energy, it’s unlikely that your body registers natural sugar any differently than table sugar or HFCS.
Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of “Food Politics” and “What to Eat”, agrees that it’s a matter of too many calories, rather than one particular food.
“The public now puts HFCS in the same category as trans fats: poison (it’s not; it’s just sugars),” says Nestle. “Biochemically, it is about the same as table sugar (both have about the same amount of fructose and calories), but it [HFCS] is in everything and Americans eat a lot of it — nearly 60 pounds per capita in 2006, just a bit less than pounds of table sugar. HFCS is not a poison, but eating less of any kind of sugar is a good idea these days.”
The American Medical Association agrees. In 2008, the organization issued a statement maintaining that HFCS does not contribute more to obesity than other sweeteners.
As a dietitian, I shun foods and drinks with HCFS because I don’t think anything manufactured in a lab belongs on our dinner plate. But whether the body differentiates between HFCS and sugar is unclear. While the jury is still out on what (if anything) HFCS does to us, it’s always best to eat foods that are as close to their natural form as possible.
Bottom line: Eat less high-fructose corn syrup and, while you’re at it, cut back on the sugar, too.