Guest Blogger: I am very happy to introduce Ruby Schuler as a guest blogger. Ruby was one of my fabulous fourth graders. She was a superstar even at the age of nine.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can be found in various products such as cookies, sodas, crackers, and cereals. This can make it hard to avoid when consuming processed foods and drinks.1 With all of the negative media attention HFCS gets, it is easy to think that it is not the healthiest of substances, yet it is hard to determine why HFCS is not healthy. Have you ever wondered why HFCS is in our food products instead of sugar? Is HFCS worse, health-wise, than table sugar? Is HFCS responsible for our country’s obesity epidemic? Take a look at the facts.
HFCS is now commonly used in foods in lieu of table sugar (sucrose) because it is cheaper and more stable.2,3 More than half of the sugar in the United States is derived from the sugar beet, which is grown in the cooler climates of the Midwest states.4 HFCS is made from American corn which is overly abundant and extremely cheap due to government subsidies.2 HFCS is a much more stable compound than table sugar for processed foods and beverages because it can withstand the acidic conditions these products go through when being shipped and subsequently left to sit on the shelf in a warehouse or grocery store.3 The stability of HFCS is due to its slightly different chemical composition in comparison to sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning that it is composed of two different single sugars, which are connected. These two single sugars are known as glucose and fructose. HFCS is made up of glucose and fructose as well; however, in HFCS these two molecules are not connected.1,3 The way in which HFCS is made is what makes the difference in composition. The process of making HFCS was perfected in the late 1960’s in Japan and involves a multiple-use enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of about half of the glucose in corn into fructose. HFCS is made up of an almost 50:50 ratio of glucose to fructose, the same ratio as sucrose.1,2,5
The difference in the chemical structures between HFCS and sucrose has led some researchers to believe that HFCS is metabolized differently than sucrose by the body and therefore could be a cause for concern in its relationship to obesity in the United States.1,3,6 HFCS is made up of free––not connected, as in sucrose––glucose and fructose molecules.1,3 Glucose is important in signaling the regulating hormone insulin, which triggers either the release or inhibition of two other hormones that are important in appetite and satiety. These two hormones are ghrelin, which is responsible for telling your body when it is hungry and inhibited by insulin, and leptin, which is responsible for signaling to your body that it is full. It is released by the presence of insulin, thus causing you to want to stop eating. Fructose, on the other hand, does not signal insulin to be secreted, so leptin will not be triggered; your body will not tell you when it is full.1,6 The lack of insulin secretion also leads to the buildup of fructose in the liver, because the fructose won’t be able to be taken up by other tissues in your body without insulin present in your bloodstream. Your body wants to use this buildup of sugar for energy before it uses the fat in your body for energy, which can lead to weight gain due to this hierarchy of oxidation. Several recent studies have shown that fructose specifically increases visceral fat, or the fat that surrounds your organs in the abdominal area.7 This may be due to the structure of fructose which allows for it to bypass an important regulating step in the liver. By bypassing this step, the liver then uses the fructose in other forms to create more fat.9 This is cause for concern due to the negative effects this belly fat can have on the body, mainly increasing risks for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.7
Observational data is what sparked the original hypothesis that HFCS was related to the rising obesity epidemic in the United States. The frequent use of HFCS in products in the United States really took off in the late 1960’s; around the time its production method was being perfected. Obesity began to rise at approximately the same time as the increase in use of HFCS, causing some researchers to think that HFCS could be the cause of the obesity epidemic.1 Some experiments have investigated the hypothesis that HFCS could be responsible for the increase in obesity; however, their results have shown that the hormones insulin, ghrelin, and leptin are not affected any differently then they are by sucrose.6,8 Studies have been carried out showing that the consumption of sugary beverages, both increase visceral fat, whether sweetened with HFCS or sucrose.7
More research is needed in order to completely understand the effects HFCS has on the body. In recalling that HFCS and sucrose are both composed of the same molecules, glucose and fructose, it is important to remember that the unbound form of fructose found in HFCS could potentially be where the most devastating effects to the body occur due to the bypassed regulation of fructose in the liver. By consuming most sugar through whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, along with restricting the amount of processed foods in the diet, the harmful affects of sugar can be reduced. Those who wish to avoid weight gain should be more concerned with the amount of added sugars they are consuming (like those in processed foods and drinks) instead of the specific type, namely the amount of fructose, which has been shown to increase harmful belly fat.10
Ruby Schuler is a senior year at UC Berkeley, majoring in Nutritional Science, Dietetics. She is interested in helping others learn about the immense power food has on our bodies, either beneficial or detrimental. Ruby knows that there is a lot of information about nutrition floating around in the media. She thinks it's important to remember that decisions about your health should be made from reliable sources. This information can be hard to come by, but she hopes to be one of the many people who can supply you with evidence to help you make better choices that can result in living a healthier and happier life!
1. Bray, G. A., Nielsen, S. J., & Popkin, B. M. (January 01, 2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79, 4, 537-43.
2. Casey, J. P. (January 01, 1977). High Fructose Corn Syrup. A Case History of Innovation. Starch - Stärke, 29, 6, 196-204.
3. White, J. S. (January 01, 2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain't. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88, 6.
4. Ali, Mir B. (October 01, 2004). Characteristics and Production Costs of U.S. Sugarbeet Farms. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service, 974-8
5. Bemiller, J. N. (September 23, 2009). One hundred years of commercial food carbohydrates in the United States. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 57, 18, 8125-8129.
6. Melanson, K. J., Zukley, L., Lowndes, J., Nguyen, V., Angelopoulos, T. J., & Rippe, J. M. (February 01, 2007). Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin and on appetite in normal-weight women. Nutrition, 23, 2, 103-112.
7. Liebman, Bonnie (April 01, 2012). Sugar Belly: How Much Sugar is Too Much Sugar? Nutrition Action, 3-7.
8. Stanhope, K. L., Swarbrick, M. M., Havel, P. J., Bair, B. R., Griffen, S. C., & Keim, N. L. (May 01, 2008). Twenty-four-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles following consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87, 5, 1194-1203.
9. Elliott, S.S., Keim, N.L., Stern, J. S., Teff, K., Havel, P.J. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr November 2002 vol. 76 no. 5 911-922.
10. White, J.S. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain't. Am J Clin Nutr December 2008 vol. 88 no. 6 1716S-1721S.