“Pour some sugar in me” (High fructose corn syrup)


I sometimes try preparing new dishes on the weekends. Other times, I am content with oatmeal and orange juice for breakfast, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and a frozen pizza for dinner. There are some folks who would deem the latter a deadly diet. These foods are full of high fructose corn syrup, which according to the scary script, can cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hyperlipidemia, insulin resistance, and other miscellaneous maladies.

However, there is no evidence HFCS causes excessive weight gain or health issues beyond what ingesting equal quantities of any other sweetener would lead to. The cause of obesity, some diabetes, and other ailments involves taking in more calories than what are burned. Writing for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning put it this way: “When you consume regular sugar the first thing your digestive system does is break the chemical bond and separate it into glucose and fructose. Once saccharides are in your body, it makes very little difference whether they came in as table sugar or as HFCS.”

The white granular substance most of us think of when we hear “sugar” consists of glucose and fructose, which are chemically bound into a larger, more complex molecule called sucrose. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, but they are mixed together rather than bound, allowing it to come in different blends. The more fructose relative to glucose, the sweeter the resultant product.

U.S. companies put high fructose corn syrup in many foods since farming conditions in this country are usually better for corn than for sugar. Indirectly, this means the syrup is cheaper for U.S. businesses and, since it is a liquid, HFCS is easier to handle and more affordable to transport. It further has advantages in baking, browning, fermenting, and moistness.

Historically, corn syrup had been so much cheaper than sucrose that companies used it to thicken foods and retain moisture. But initially, corn syrup was seldom used as a sweetener since it was less sweet than sucrose. Then in 1957, food scientists developed a process to convert some of the glucose in corn syrup to fructose, yielding a product that was 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose, which substantially increased its sweetness.

All this is why it is used in so many foods and this ubiquity is no cause for concern. For Science Based Medicine, Jim Laidler wrote, “Many of the sources that demonize HFCS list alternative sweeteners — cane sugar, honey, agave syrup, etc. — and claim they are healthier than HFCS, but those claims usually rest primarily on the fact that these alternatives to HFCS are ‘natural’ rather than any data showing that they are safer.” 

None of this alters the fact that a diet high in fructose could contribute to the diseases listed earlier. But the same is true with other sweeteners and those others may even have a more pronounced deleterious effect since one needs less HFCS to get the same level of sweetness. So if I don’t feel like cooking this weekend, I will eat my PB and J without undue worry.

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