Saturday, July 18, 2015

High Fructose Corn Syrup - Is It Really All That Bad?

[Health and Medicine]

What’s wrong with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? Sugar in any form, such as cane sugar and HFCS, causes obesity and disease when consumed in pharmacologic doses. However, there are some additional and unique health implications related to HFCS.

What do we mean by pharmacologic dose?  This is a dosage that is so much larger or more potent than what would occur naturally, that it might have qualitatively different effects.

Why do I propose that the level of sugar we are currently consuming is classified as pharmacologic? The average American currently consumes over 140 pounds of sugar per year, over 60 of those pounds are HFCS (mostly from sugar sweetened drinks and processed food). Just 10,000 years ago, our diet included 20 teaspoons of sugar per year.

Here is a graph depicting how our sugar intake has increased over the last 40 years, and also how we have more recently shifted towards HFCS.  It is equally interesting to note that over that same time period, on average, we weigh 25 pounds more.

Source: Wikipedia on HFCS
You could go so far as to say that Americans are being poisoned by this common additive present in a wide array of processed foods like soft drinks and salad dressings, commercially made cakes and cookies, and breakfast cereals and brand-name breads.  In fact, if you spend any time reading the labels of processed foods, you will have noticed HFCS is a very common additive, even in foods you might not think of requiring any sweetener.

HFCS is so ubiquitous in processed foods and so over-consumed by the average American that many experts believe our nation faces the prospect of an epidemic of metabolic disease in the future, related in significant degree to excess consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

I apologize in advance for the highly technically explanation on what HFCS is and how it is is produced, however, this might be a good time to reflect on Michael Pollan's mantra, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." 

HFCS is made from corn (maize) milled to produce corn starch and an "acid-enzyme" process is used in which the corn starch solution is acidified to begin breaking up the existing carbohydrates, and then enzymes are added to further metabolize the starch and convert the resulting sugars to fructose. The first enzyme added is alpha-amylase which breaks the long chains down into shorter sugar chains – oligosaccharides. Glucoamylase is mixed in and converts them to glucose; the resulting solution is filtered to remove protein, then using activated carbon, and then demineralized using Ion-exchange resins. The purified solution is then run over immobilized xylose isomerase, which turns the sugars to ~50–52% glucose with some unconverted oligosaccharides, and 42% fructose (HFCS 42), and again demineralized and again purified using activated carbon. Some is processed into HFCS 90 by liquid chromatography, then mixed with HFCS 42 to form HFCS 55. The enzymes used in the process are made by microbial fermentation.

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 have a very serious health issue occurring. Here are some points for your consideration:
  • 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. The sugars are extracted through a chemical enzymatic process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound. 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. Since there is there is no chemical bond between them, no digestion is required so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) and 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. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin–our body’s major fat storage hormone.  These two features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more. In the last 20 years, the average adult male now consumes 187 more calories a day and the average adult female 335 calories. If we do not burn these calories, they are result in an additional pound of body weight at a ratio of 3500 calories to 1 pound.  You can see that under these conditions, obesity is entirely unavoidable.
  • Consumption of HFCS contributes to Leaky-Gut Syndrome which has a whole host of inflammatory response health issues.  Research done by Dr. Bruce Ames’ group at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute found that free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed by the gut and soaks up two phosphorous molecules from ATP (our body’s energy source). This depletes the energy fuel source, or ATP, in our gut required to maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining. Little “tight junctions” cement each intestinal cell together preventing food and bacteria from “leaking” across the intestinal membrane and triggering an immune reaction and body wide inflammation. High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia, and accelerated aging.
  • HFCS contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA. Chemical contaminants used during manufacturing end up in the HFCS and in our food.  What we know, for example, is that chloralkali is used in making high fructose corn syrup. Chloralkai contains mercury. And there are trace amounts of mercury found in HFCS-containing beverages. Now, it may not be a problem if we HFCS, but the average person in the country consumes more than 20 teaspoons a day of HFCS and the average teenager has 34 teaspoons a day. Over time, these heavy metal contanimants can accumulate in the body, causing health problems. Additionally, when we look at the chemical components of high fructose corn syrup on a spectrograph, we can see that it contains many weird chemicals that we know nothing about.
  • Independent medical and nutrition experts DO NOT support the use of HFCS in our diet. In a review of HFCS in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it explains the mechanism by which the free fructose may contribute to obesity. It states that: “The digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose. Hepatic metabolism of fructose induces lipogenesis (production of fat in the liver). In addition, unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. Because insulin and leptin act as key signals in the regulation of food intake and body weight (to control appetite), this suggests that dietary fructose may contribute to increased intake and weight gain. Furthermore, calorically sweetened beverages may enhance caloric over-consumption. 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 over-consumption of total calories. It concludes by saying that: “… the increase in consumption of HFCS has a  temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and that the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.
  • HFCS 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 it is an indicator 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 about the biochemistry and physiology of cane sugar versus corn sugar (HFCS), this is in fact beside the point. The conversation has been diverted to a simple assertion that cane sugar and corn sugar are not different while the real issue is that sugar intake is a problem period, with considerably greater consequence from the intake of HFCS.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that If you want to stay healthy, lose weight more easily, get rid of chronic disease, and help reduce the obesity epidemic, the single most important thing you can do is reduce your overall fructose intake including the entire elimination of HFCS from your and your children's diet.

In closing, here is a highly informative YouTube video from UCTV (University of California Television) – Sugar: The Bitter Truth.

Additional Notes:

Pure, White and Deadly
John Yudkin wrote the seminal treatise on the issues with sugar in 1972 - Pure, White and Deadly.  If you really want to dive into this area of research, this is a great place to start.

Sugars Compared and Contrasted

I thought a little more information comparing and contrasting various types of sugars might be useful.

Simple carbohydrates such as sugars are classified as either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest, most basic units of carbohydrates and are made up of only one sugar unit. Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides and are the building blocks of sucrose, a disaccharide. Thus, disaccharides are just a pair of linked sugar molecules. They are formed when two monosaccharides are joined together and a molecule of water is removed -- a dehydration reaction.

The most important monosaccharide is glucose, the body╒s preferred energy source. Glucose is also called blood sugar, as it circulates in the blood, and relies on the enzymes glucokinase or hexokinase to initiate metabolism. Your body processes most carbohydrates you eat into glucose, either to be used immediately for energy or to be stored in muscle cells or the liver as glycogen for later use. Unlike fructose, insulin is secreted primarily in response to elevated blood concentrations of glucose, and insulin facilitates the entry of glucose into cells.

Fructose is a sugar found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, and added to various beverages such as soda and fruit-flavored drinks. However, it is very different from other sugars because it has a different metabolic pathway and is not the preferred energy source for muscles or the brain. Fructose is only metabolized in the liver and relies on fructokinase to initiate metabolism. It is also more lipogenic, or fat-producing, than glucose. Unlike glucose, too, it does not cause insulin to be released or stimulate production of leptin, a key hormone for regulating energy intake and expenditure. These factors raise concerns about chronically high intakes of dietary fructose, because it appears to behave more like fat in the body than like other carbohydrates.

Sucrose is commonly known as table sugar, and is obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets. Fruits and vegetables also naturally contain sucrose. When sucrose is consumed, the enzyme beta-fructosidase separates sucrose into its individual sugar units of glucose and fructose. Both sugars are then taken up by their specific transport mechanisms. The body responds to the glucose content of the meal in its usual manner; however, fructose uptake occurs at the same time. The body will use glucose as its main energy source and the excess energy from fructose, if not needed, will be poured into fat synthesis, which is stimulated by the insulin released in response to glucose.

Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. It is a disaccharide made up of glucose and galactose. Much attention is given to lactose since it is the component of dairy to which many people are intolerant. The body produces an enzyme called lactase which is supposed to break down any lactose consumed. However, those who are lactose intolerant do not have enough lactase to properly digest this disaccharide and consequently experience symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.

Comparison between Glucose, Fructose, Lactose, Maltose and Sucrose:

It is a simple monosaccharide. It is regarded to be the most common carbohydrate which is required by the cells of the body for energy.
It is a monosaccharide, which is a structural polymer of Glucose.
It is a disaccharide. It is a readily digestible source of glucose which is capable of providing energy for the neonate.
It is a disaccharide. It is not commonly found in food items. However, it can be formed from the digestion of starch.
It is a disaccharide. It is a type of sugar which is commonly found in plants.

Molecular Formula
Molecular Arrangement
Most of the glucose consists of molecules arranges in a shape of a ring.
It can form a five-membered or six-membered
ring with oxygen in the ring
The galactose and glucose moieties are linked together through a so called beta-(1,4) glucosidic linkage
In maltose, two glucose units are joined by an α-1,4 glycosidic linkage
It involves the use of the alpha form of D-glucose and the beta form of D-fructose.
Word Origin
From Greek word for sweet wine
Latin word for fruit--"fructus"
Latin word for milk--"lact"
French word for "malt”
French word for sugar-"sucre"
Found in
Sap of plants, bloodstream of animals
Many fruits, vegetables, honey
Milk and milk products like cheese and yogurt
Germinating grain, corn syrup
Found in many plants but extracted as ordinary sugar mainly from sugar cane and sugar beets