Sugar, specifically in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), has been a hot topic lately. In the quest for the cure for obesity, some see sugar as the main culprit of our country’s expanding waistline; HFCS just happens to be at the center of the “blame sugar buzz.” Is HFCS to blame? What are the purported negative health effects and are they substantiated by research?
What is HFCS?
HFCS is a combination of glucose and fructose. Glucose is a simple sugar that can be found in most foods, commonly attached to other sugars. It is the preferred source of energy for our brain and many cells in the body. Fructose is a simple sugar that naturally occurs in fruit and vegetables. Glucose and fructose are found together naturally in cane sugar, which is commonly referred to as table sugar.
- “Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake (surplus) was the same.“ Princeton
- The sharp rise in obesity has coincided with the introduction of HFCS.
- Potential negative health effects in humans:
1. Insulin resistance and obesity
2. Elevated blood pressure
3. Elevated triglycerides and LDL
4. Cardiovascular disease, liver disease, cancer, arthritis, and gout
What Science Says
- Many design flaws exist in the animal studies, making it difficult to translate their results into conclusions for real-world human application. Current animal studies DO show reproducible detrimental effects; HOWEVER, they have not been replicated in human trials. Source
- The sharp rise in obesity has coincided with numerous changes in our culture, according to the USDA research services (1970-2007):
Decreased consumption of:
Meats, eggs, nuts: -4%
ADDED SUGAR: -1%
Increased consumption of:
Cereal products: +3%
CALORIES: + 603 kcals per day increase. ( I think we have our primary culprit!)
- Addressing the potential negative health effects in humans:
1. Insulin resistance and obesity.
Rat studies. These cannot be applied to humans due to significant differences in carbohydrate metabolism and inappropriate doses in the majority of studies. No studies IN HUMANS with calorie-equated exchanges of fructose for other forms of sugar have shown these effects.
2. Elevated blood pressure.
The 95th percentile for human fructose consumption (those consuming the MOST) is about 78g per day. The primary study referenced for HFCS-elevating blood pressure used 200g per day for 2 straight weeks. As you can see, even the highest consumers of fructose do not consume anywhere close to what was given to the participants of this study.
3. Elevated triglycerides and LDL.
Human studies do not show this when comparing equal amounts of fructose to other sugar, animal studies do because of very different carbohydrate metabolism.
4. Cardiovascular disease and gout from increased uric acid production.
When you swap out equivalent amounts of other carbohydrates for fructose, we do not see increased concentrations of uric acid in the blood. However, when consuming excess fructose (200g per day vs. normal, which is around 49gper day) AND excess calories, uric acid is increased. Increases in uric acid are common when calories are consumed in excess. More research is needed to determine the respective responsibility for increases in uric acid of excess calorie consumption versus excess fructose consumption.
Any food that adds no nutritional value to the diet should be avoided. Excess consumption of HFCS undoubtedly is an unhealthy choice. However, this likely is due to the corresponding excess consumption of calories and resulting gain in fat. Pointing to ONE single item as the cause for obesity not only is scientifically invalid but also is irresponsible. Our nation’s obesity epidemic is multifactorial and needs to be addressed as such. While HFCS is concentrated in easy-to-drink high doses, so are other forms of sugar and fat; it remains the responsibility of the consumer to avoid these calorie-dense, nutritionally void foods.
For individuals concerned about the health effects of HFCS, other choices are easy to make. There are natural alternatives to all products containing HFCS. More research is needed in the area but current research has not found HFCS to be more detrimental to human health than other sugars consumed in excess.