The current media debate about the benefits (or lack of harm) of high fructose corn syrup in our diet misses the obvious. The average American has increased his consumption of HFCS (mostly from sugar-sweetened drinks and processed food) from zero to more than 60 pounds per year. Obesity rates have more than tripled and diabetes incidence has increased more than seven-fold. HFCS is not perhaps the only cause, but one that cannot be ignored.
Doubt and confusion are the currency of deception, and they sow the seeds of complacency. Recently, these have been used skillfully through massive print and television advertising campaigns by the Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to dispel the “myth” that HFCS is harmful and assert through the opinion of “medical and nutrition experts” that it is no different than cane sugar. It is a “natural” product that can be a healthy part of our diets when used in moderation.
The lengths the corn industry will go to
The goal of the corn industry is to call into question any claim of harm from consuming high fructose corn syrup, and to confuse consumers by calling the product natural “corn sugar.” That’s like calling tobacco in cigarettes natural herbal medicine. Watch the slick ad where a caring father walks hand in hand with his four-year-old daughter through a big question mark carved in an idyllic cornfield.
In the ad, the father tells us:
Like any parent, I have questions about the food my daughter eats — things like high fructose corn syrup. So I started looking for answers from medical and nutrition experts, and what I discovered is that whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar. And knowing that makes me feel better about what she eats. And that’s one less thing to worry about.
Physicians are also targeted directly. I received a 12-page color glossy monograph from the Corn Refiners Association reviewing the “science” that claims HFCS is safe and no different from cane sugar. I assume the other 700,000 physicians in America received the same information, at who knows what cost.
In addition to this, I received a special “personal” letter from the Corn Refiners Association outlining my every mention of the problems with HCFS in our diet — whether in print, blogs, books, radio or television. They warned me of the errors of my ways and put me on “notice.” For what I am not sure. To think they are tracking this (and me) that closely gives me an Orwellian chill.
New websites like sweetsurprise.com and cornsugar.com help “set us straight” about HFCS with quotes from professors of nutrition and medicine and thought leaders from Harvard and other stellar institutions.
Why is the corn industry spending millions on misinformation campaigns to convince consumers and health care professionals of the safety of their product? Are these twisted sweet lies or a sweet surprise, as the Corn Refiners Association websites claim?
What the science says about HFCS
Let’s examine the science and insert some common sense into the conversation. These facts may indeed come as a sweet surprise. The ads suggest getting your nutrition advice from your doctor. Having studied this for more than a decade, and having read, interviewed or personally talked with most of the medical and nutrition experts used to bolster the claim that “corn sugar” and cane sugar are essentially the same, quite a different picture emerges, and the role of HCFS in promoting obesity, disease and death across the globe becomes clear.
Here are 5 reasons you should stay way from any product containing high fructose corn syrup:
1. Sugar in any form causes obesity and disease when consumed in pharmacologic doses.
Cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are indeed both harmful when consumed in pharmacologic doses of 140 pounds per person per year. When one 20-ounce HFCS-sweetened soda, sports drink or tea has 17 teaspoons of sugar (and the average teenager often consumes two drinks a day), we are conducting a largely uncontrolled experiment on the human species. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed the equivalent of 20 teaspoons per year, not per day. In this sense, I would agree with the corn industry that sugar is sugar. Quantity matters. But there are some important differences.
2. HFCS and cane sugar are NOT biochemically identical or processed the same way by the body.
High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and far from “natural” or a naturally occurring substance. It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill would reportedly not allow the investigative journalist Michael Pollan to observe it for his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The sugars are extracted through a chemical enzymatic process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound called HFCS.
Some basic biochemistry will help you understand this. Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two sugar molecules bound tightly together — glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body.
HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose-to-glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose. And HFCS is cheaper than sugar because of the government farm bill corn subsidies. Products with HFCS are sweeter and cheaper than products made with cane sugar. This allowed for the average soda size to balloon from eight ounces to 20 ounces with little financial costs to manufacturers, but with great human costs such as increased obesity, diabetes and chronic disease.
Now back to biochemistry. Since there is there is no chemical bond between the fructose and glucose, no digestion is required, so they are more rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol). This is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver,” which affects 70 million people. Meanwhile, the rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin — our body’s major fat-storage hormone. Both of these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more.
In addition, research conducted by the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute found that high doses of free fructose literally punch holes in the intestinal lining, allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your bloodstream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging. (However, naturally occurring fructose in fruit doesn’t exhibit the same biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in “corn sugar.”)
The takeaway: Cane sugar and the industrially produced, euphemistically named “corn sugar” are not biochemically or physiologically the same.
3. HFCS contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA.
An FDA researcher asked corn producers to ship her a barrel of high fructose corn syrup in order to test it for contaminants. Her repeated requests were refused until she claimed she represented a newly created soft drink company. She was then promptly shipped a big vat of HFCS that was used as part of a study that showed that HFCS often contains toxic levels of mercury because of the chlor-alkali products used in its manufacturing. Poisoned sugar is not “natural.”
When HFCS is run through a chemical analyzer or a chromatograph, strange chemical peaks show up that are neither glucose nor fructose. What are they? Who knows? This certainly calls into question the purity of this processed form of super sugar. The exact nature, effects and toxicity of these funny compounds have not been fully explored, but shouldn’t we be protected from the presence of untested chemical compounds in our food supply, especially when the contaminated food product comprises up to 15 to 20 percent of the average American’s daily calorie intake?
4. Many independent medical and nutrition experts DO NOT support the use of HFCS in our diet, despite the assertions of the corn industry.
Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has published widely on the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks and their contribution to the obesity epidemic. In a review of HFCS in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, he explains the mechanism by which the free fructose may contribute to obesity. He states that HFCS is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and that it doesn’t stimulate insulin or leptin production. This prevents you from triggering the body’s signals for being full and may lead to overconsumption of total calories.
He concludes by saying that:
“… the increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.”
The corn industry takes his comments out of context to support their position. “All sugar you eat is the same.”
David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and a personal friend, has published extensively on the dangers and the obesogenic properties of sugar-sweetened beverages. He was quoted by the corn industry as saying that “high fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food industry.” When I asked him why he supported the corn industry, he told me he doesn’t and that his comments were taken totally out of context.
Misrepresenting science is one thing, but misrepresenting scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against obesity and high fructose sugar–sweetened beverages is quite another.
5. HCFS is almost always a marker of poor-quality, nutrient-poor, disease-creating industrial food products or “food-like substances.”
The last reason to avoid products that contain HFCS is that they are a marker for poor-quality, nutritionally depleted, processed industrial food full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. If you find “high fructose corn syrup” on the label, you can be sure it is not a whole, real, fresh food full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Stay away if you want to stay healthy. We still must reduce our overall consumption of sugar, but with this one simple dietary change you can radically reduce your health risks and improve your health.
While the debate may rage on about the biochemistry and physiology of cane sugar vs. corn sugar, the real issues are only two.
1. We are consuming HFCS and sugar in pharmacologic quantities never before experienced in human history — 140 pounds a year vs. 20 teaspoons a year 10,000 years ago.
2. High fructose corn syrup is almost always found in very poor-quality foods that are nutritionally vacuous and filled with all sorts of other disease-promoting compounds, fats, salt, chemicals — even mercury.
These critical ideas should be at the heart of the national conversation, not the meaningless and confusing ads and statements by the corn industry as it attempts to assure the public that the biochemistry of real sugar and industrially produced sugar from corn are the same.
For more information on the effects of high fructose corn syrup see drhyman.com.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post.