High Fructose Corn Syrup - Is It As Evil As We've Been Told?

March 28, 2016 Debbie Bowman

Firstly, what is high fructose corn syrup? HFCS is a popular sweetener derived from corn.  It was invented in Japan in 1956 and introduced to North America in 1975. Basically, to get HFCS from corn, enzymes are used to change some of the naturally occurring glucose into fructose.  Though there is some controversy regarding the health effects of how HFCS is made, HFCS is basically half fructose and half glucose. Specifically, HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose.  

Why is HFCS so popular with food manufacturers?  HFCS came into vogue in the 1970's but it really took off in the mid 1990's when subsidies to corn growers made the cost of HFCS much cheaper than ordinary table sugar.  All in all, because it's a liquid it's easier to ship around, and because of the subsidies, it increases the company's bottom line.  Hmmm, sort of the same thing it does to us - but we'll get to that later. 

Where can HFCS be found?  Well, the simpler question to ask is where it's NOT found, because HFCS has become ubiquitous in the standard North American diet - generally, it's everywhere.  For example, most fast foods contains HFCS.  As well, most processed foods sold in North America contain HFCS -  foods such as pastries, condiments and sauces, lunch meats….(lunch meats?!), cereals, and yogurts. Even staple foods like bread almost always contain added sugars, usually in the form of HFCS.  To illustrate the fact that there is a lot of added sugar in our staple foods, I surveyed the breads offered at a popular local grocery store.  Here are the results: Out of 51 different choices of bread, 46 contained either sugar or HFCS - even those touted as organic or for weight loss.   

So we should use normal table sugar instead, right?  Wrong, because table sugar, or sucrose, is chemically just the same as HFCS.  Remember that HFCS is basically half fructose and half glucose?  Well, sucrose is simply one glucose molecule connected to one fructose molecule.  The weak chemical bond connecting the two molecules is broken during digestion in the mouth and stomach, and the body then metabolizes the two separate molecules.  Essentially, as far as our metabolism is concerned, table sugar and HFCS are the same.  And here's the rub - they're also equally bad.  That's because both HFCS and table sugar are 50% fructose, which is now known to cause major health problems when consumed in large quantities. 

Why is fructose worrisome? It's a matter of how the fructose is metabolized in the body.  Only the liver can metabolize fructose.  When you consume large amounts of fructose - which is easily done with today's processed foods - a large portion of the fructose gets changed over to triglycerides, otherwise known as fats.  Basically, when you consume fructose you consume fat, because excess fructose spills over from the liver as fat storage.   

Fructose metabolism also leads to uric acid.  Uric acid causes two health problems; high blood pressure and gout.  Gout, once a disease of the middle ages, has seen a resurgence in past decades, which is in proportion to the increased consumption of fructose.  Interesting. 

Fructose also effects hunger and satiety signals…and not in good ways.  Specifically, fructose fails to suppress ghrelin, a hormone that indicates hunger.  It also fails to stimulate leptin, a hormone that indicates satiety, or fullness.  Therefore, eating processed foods that contain fructose may cause you to eat more.   I'm reminded of the "You can't eat just one!" Lay's chips campaign.  They were more right than they knew.  

Fructose also leads to belly fat, specifically, visceral fat, or VF. VF is not the subcutaneous fat found just under the skin all over the body. VF is the fat found around the organs in the abdomen, sometimes called a beer belly or a spare tire.  The bad news is that VF is very dangerous to your health.  Specifically, VF is connected to metabolic syndrome. Called the "disease of civilization", metabolic syndrome affects about 25% of North Americans and is characterized by high blood pressure, large waist circumference, as well as low HDL cholesterol, (that's the good one), high blood triglycerides, and high fasting glucose.  Most worrisome, metabolic syndrome is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a very high risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Okay, so fructose can be bad in large quantities, but what about fruit?  Isn't fructose also known as fruit sugar?  Should we then limit the amount of fruit we eat?  Well, we shouldn't eat an entire fruit-bowl of apricots in one sitting, we'd probably regret that….but eating fruit each day is definitely a good thing.  Fruit contains a lot of fibre, which protects us from many of the negative side effects of too much fructose.  We can trust that foods such as fruit, in their natural state, unadulterated by any food scientist, is healthy.   

And really, it's the amount of fructose we're talking about, not just the fructose itself.  For example, we'd have to eat a lot of fruit to equal the amount of fructose in a can of soda.  To illustrate this point, here's a table that shows the fructose in 100 grams of fruit compared to the fructose in soda.  

apple - 6 grams

banana - 5  grams

blackberries - 2.5 grams

blueberries - 5 grams

cantaloupe  - 2 grams

grapes - 8 grams

honeydew - 3 grams

kiwi - 5 grams

pear - 6 grams

pineapple - 2 grams

raspberries - 2.5 grams

strawberries - 2.5 grams

tangerine - 2.5 grams

watermelon - 3.5 grams

tomato - 2.5 grams

can of soda - 23 grams

super sized soda - 62 grams

So the real issue is that excessive consumption of sugars, either table sugar or HFCS, can lead to health problems.  The problem is that we're eating more and more fructose as a society.

In days past, like the early 1900's, we didn't eat much fructose.  Back then, the natural consumption of fruits and vegetables accounted for about 15 grams of fructose a day.  Now we're up to between 55 grams and even 75 grams a day.  That's a big jump and it explains why we're getting fatter.  Even though we've lowered our fat consumption, we haven't seen any health gains.  That's because we've swapped fat for fructose in most processed foods.  And fructose, metabolically speaking, equals fat.  

So how can we avoid the negative effects of added sugar? I think you know the answer to this question - we need to curtail our sweet tooth.  That doesn't mean we can't have any sugar, but we need be be more aware of the hidden sugar we eat.  We also need to train ourselves to learn how food tastes when it isn't dusted, slathered, iced, and laced with sugar.  To do this we need to slowly decrease the amount of sugar we add to foods.  For example, if you like brown sugar on your oatmeal, start lowering the amount of sugar you add and concentrate on how the oats taste with the milk.  Or nix the sugar altogether and add berries instead.  Soon you'll start to appreciate the subtle flavours that abound without the overpowering taste of sugar.  A small amount may make some things taste better, but the key word is small.  

As well, we should avoid fast food at all costs.  Fast food is ripe with added sugars.  These sugars are added as preservatives and to make the food taste better.  Also, as we learned earlier, fructose leads to increased consumption because of its affect on ghrelin and leptin, the hunger hormones.  

Next, read labels and become familiar with sugar's many disguises.  Look for ingredients like dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup solids and of course, high fructose corn syrup - sometimes called glucose/fructose here in Canada.  Lastly, avoid all canned and bottled beverages, except for water and plain milk.  

If you must have something sweet, brown rice syrup and barley malt syrup contain no fructose, so they are good substitute sweeteners.  Honey, though the chemical makeup is similar to table sugar and HFCS, also contains antioxidants and trace minerals that seem to protect the body from the negative effects of fructose.  This also goes for the fructose found in fruit.  

So to answer the question asked at the beginning of this article - "Is HFCS as evil as we've been told?" - the answer is yes, but so is table sugar.  Both are half fructose….both can damage your health.  The solution is to steer away from added sugar as much as possible.