Stove Top Stuffing, Capri-Sun Juice, Apple Jacks, Eggo Waffles, Heinz Ketchup, Pop Tarts, Wheat Thins, and almost every soda – including Coke and Pepsi. These are just a few of the many, many processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup, the sweetener that has been gaining ground on sugar since being introduced in the 1970s. In recent years, as consumers have grown more suspicious of big business and as nutrition researchers have tried to pin down links between diet and obesity, high fructose corn syrup has been indicted as a contributing factor in the sharp trend toward a fat America. Of course, industry representatives and some researchers vehemently claim that the rise of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener has little to do with an increasingly fat population.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Health: First, what IS high fructose corn syrup?
Conventional table sugar, or sucrose, is extracted from sugar beet and sugar cane. Sucrose is just glucose and fructose bonded together in equal proportions.
As you can imagine, high fructose corn syrup starts with corn instead, but the corn starch is treated with enzymes to increase the amount of fructose so that it tastes more like regular sugar. High fructose corn syrup is a combination of glucose and fructose, though the proportions are not equal. The fructose content in high fructose corn syrup can be a little higher than in sugar (as the name would suggest), but it can also be a little lower than in sugar. It all depends on the form that’s being used in a particular food product. Many soft drinks and other processed foods use high fructose corn syrup that is 55% fructose.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Health: Why is it hard to state a link to obesity?
Of the many factors likely to increase obesity, it’s hard to determine which ones play the most significant roles. Is the rise of HFCS and the decline of regular sugar the issue? Or is that we have too many sweeteners period, regardless of the type? And what about fat consumption? General overeating? The expanding of fast food? Lack of adequate exercise? The advent of the internet, meaning more time spent on our butts?
Nutrition researchers are faced with the dilemma of trying to sort through these variables and determine whether the significant increase in American consumption of high fructose corn syrup is causally linked to an increase in obesity – or whether there’s just a correlation.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Health: Who says there is (or may be) a link?
The study quoted most often was conducted in 2004 by Bray, Nielsen, and Popkin (from Louisiana State University and the University of North Carolina) and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. By analyzing dietary changes and health records from the latter 20th century, they found that the dramatic increase in HFCS consumption “mirrored” the increase in obesity. They discuss the specifics of how our bodies handle fructose – specifically how fructose limits our production of insulin and leptin, two substances that in turn affect our intake of calories and our weight. Their study gives special attention to beverages sweetened with HFCS, and this led to the media buzz about soft drinks and obesity. Other researchers have followed in the footsteps of Bray and company and extrapolated on their findings in support of a possible link between high fructose corn syrup and the overweight public.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Health: Who says there ISN’T a link?
As you can imagine, the production of high fructose corn syrup is big business, so the industry argues against the links by stating that American obesity is due primarily to a lack of exercise. They also point to work done by Schorin in 2005, as published in Nutrition Today, claiming that HFCS is so chemically similar to sugar (sucrose) in its fructose levels that it can’t possible account for obesity. To quote the article: “Ã¢Â?Â¦it is difficult to identify a plausible physiological explanation for how approximately equal amounts of fructose and glucose should have differential effects when chemically bonded (such as in sucrose) or not (such as in HFCS).” Other scholars have reached similar conclusions.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Health: My Thoughts
With evidence on both sides of the equation, the largely untutored American public is left with a bunch of question marks and a long list of foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. Certainly, there is no one cause of obesity, as people’s bodies and behaviors vary. But it’s possible that high fructose corn syrup, especially the 55% fructose variety, can create a bodily environment more favorable for obesity – perhaps not the ultimate cause, but probably a contextual contributor.