Many of us have seen the headlines about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) within the past year. From defensive television commercials sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association to hateful blogs/internet postings on the evils of this simple sugar, consumers and even some experts are not sure what side of the fence to jump towards.
What is fructose, anyway?
Fructose or “fruit sugar”, is a carbohydrate that is often found in fruits. You can also find it in the chemical makeup of honey and is considered the sweetest of all the simple sugars (i.e. glucose, galactose, mannose). Both glucose and fructose are considered the most important simple sugars for human consumption.
Different forms of fructose play an integral part of the biochemical regulation in our body such as glycolysis (breaking down carbohydrates) and gluconeogenesis (creating glucose from our own cells) regulation. Without these, our metabolism would be deprived of important mediators of our own biochemistry.
One thing that many find confusing is the relationship of fructose to HFCS. It is often mistaken for pure fructose or common corn syrup which is actually only made of glucose. When in fact, HFCS a combination of glucose and fructose that is available in differing proportions.
THe controversy over high fructose corn syrup
A Brief History of HFCS
Sucrose from cane sugar or beet sugar has long been the staple in the diets of humans. One of the problems with this type of sugar is the technological disadvantages in terms of manufacturing and food production. In addition, price fluctuation and availability of sugar adds to the difficulty of it being a major part of our food supply.
In the 1950s and 1960s , developmental work created this liquid sweetener to replace sucrose (table sugar) that was commonly used in many foods and beverages. HFCS became a welcome and useful alternative to the food industry. Not only was it easier to transport and much simpler to produce it also lengthened the shelf-life of foods. And since it is made from corn that can be grown here in the US, the price dropped.
The Creation of the Newer, Cheaper Sweetener.
HFCS is an extraction of sugar from corn. First, the corn is milled and processed until it forms into a syrup. A little enzyme chemistry results in a blend of glucose and fructose. By the 1970s, HFCS was one of the most popular sweeteners on the market when the price of sugar was on the rise. So why all the bad press?
In 2004, Bray et al. published comments on a connection between the rise of obesity and the introduction of HFCS into the US food supply stating that the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose. They also wrote:
“…unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. Because insulin and leptin act as key afferent signals in the regulation of food intake and body weight, this suggests that dietary fructose may contribute to increased energy intake and weight gain.” - American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 79, No. 4, 537-543, April 2004
And this was merely, the beginning. Since then, research has been pouring into the medical journal databases on the relationship between unhealthy eating behaviors, diabetes, high cholesterol, and so forth against this once heralded sugar. At the same time, there has been research not-so-much in the defense of HFCS but, that it isn’t any different from any other sugar that we include in our diets. In 2008, a representative of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) made this statement:
“High fructose corn syrup may be used as a sweetener in processed foods and beverages and is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 per gram) and consist of about equal parts of fructose and glucose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.” – Kristine S. Clark, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM, High Fructose Corn Syrup and Weight Status (Dec 2008)
Even the corn industry is stepping in and trying to save face by creating commercials, and magazine ads in support of their product. They also have geared their website towards gaining the trust from consumers and going to the great lengths of changing the name from HFCS to corn sugar. So, this begs the question “Who do we believe?”
Industry Response to the Negative Media Towards HFCS
Whether they are for or against the current claims that HFCS is the cause of the poor health, some companies have opted to go with the safe route and change their products. Advertising is commonly including taglines that their new formulations are “Made with Real Sugar” or “High Fructose Corn Syrup-Free”. In November 2009, Pepsi announced that it was removing HFCS from its Gatorade products because “many athletes have a negative perception of the sweetener”. And the list of responses from many major food brands continues on from there.
The Boring but Best Choice is to Keep Sugar Intake Low
To the readers that were looking for a final answer to this ongoing debate you are unfortunately not going to find it here. After going through the recent literature, there hasn’t been a profound agreement among scientists on this issue. However, there is one thing that still holds true. Calories are calories. Regardless on how you want to consume them, they are still involved in your daily weight maintenance. If you choose to include sugar (in any form) in your diet, do so in moderation.
Sticking to your overall calorie needs is the best way to maintain your weight which places less blame on the ingredient list and more on your personal choices. Sometimes, sitting on the fence isn’t a bad thing. It gives you a better view of all the bickering between neighbors.