The Messy HFCS Debate: Do We Really Know?

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There’s been back and forth bantering between nutritionists/medical professionals and agricultural scientists about whether high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is legitimately harmful to humans – or if it’s only harmful when consumed in abundance, or if it’s not harmful at all. As many of you have probably seen on grocery aisles, the debate has prompted some companies to ditch HFCS for pure cane sugar in their products, or at least offer a pure cane sugar alternative. The corn industry fears it will continue to lose money if the shift away from HFCS continues, and threw dollars into a campaign (with the humorous title “Sweet Surprise”) targeting, directly and explicitly, “false” health claims about HFCS (i.e., HFCS is totally fine for you and enhances flavor). This only fueled the fire.

As with most issues that involve huge legal budgets and marketing dollars, it’s hard to find a clear-cut answer – especially when at least one side (the corn industry) is spinning the truth like a top. For example, HFCS is a mixture of fructose and glucose, with a higher amount of fructose – commonly (and approximately) 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose (the remaining 3 percent consists of numerous ingredients irrelevant to this discussion). Cane sugar is really sucrose, a 50-50 mixture of fructose and glucose. Sweet Surprise claims on their home page that high fructose corn syrup “is not high in fructose as its name would suggest. High fructose corn syrup is composed of the same two simple sugars (fructose and glucose) as table sugar, honey, and maple syrup.” Of course it uses the same two sugars – it’s not the ingredients that pose a health risk, it’s the ratio of ingredients. As Off the Grid writer Jerry Greenfield writes, “every cell in your body utilizes glucose, so it is burned up pretty quickly. Fructose, on the other hand, is turned into free fatty acids and triglycerides which get stored as fat. When you eat 120 calories of glucose, less than one calorie is stored as fat. When you eat 120 calories of fructose, a whopping 40 calories are stored as fat.”

The body, therefore, treats fructose and glucose very differently – and even a few percentage points more of fructose and change the way the body responds to the sweetener, with the primary risk being increased fat retention. Princeton psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who spent his career studying the neuroscience of apetite, weight, and sugar addiction, confirmed this when he concluded in March 2010: “some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true, at least under the condition of our tests. When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”

Many health associations in the US have made claims about HFCS in the last five years. They’re been all over the map, and some have been retracted shortly after they were announced. The truth is, this issue’s still in the gray, and in general dealt with via the following lines of logic:

1. The “if there’s any doubt, forget it” approach. The simple fact that there are studies being done to determine the safety and healthiness of HFCS is reason enough to avoid it.

2. The “there’s too many differing sides, so forget it” approach. How can we know the truth amidst so many claims? Don’t change your behavior until you have a legitimate reason to.

3. The “we should all be growing our own food anyway” approach. Even though HFCS is derived from corn, it’s not a purely natural ingredient. If it went through chemical processing, don’t eat it.

We don’t really make outright claims on many things. Sometimes, the (2) approach above is warranted – not claiming something until there’s sufficient evidence. But on this issue, we’ve taken approach (3): avoid chemically-processed ingredients when possible.

(image via: Kansas Grains)

Written by Brian Nunnery

September 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm

One Response

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  1. […] last blog that I observed was in.gredients. This blog differs from the previous two because it doesn’t go into any great detail about […]


    October 4, 2011 at 4:41 pm

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