HFCS: The cause of all our problems?

In recent years, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been demonized as the cause of our obesity epidemic. It has been thought that it raises blood sugar and insulin response, among other things that could contribute to weight gain, diabetes and other health problems. But is this the case?

Today, I received a slide presentation from the El Paso Dietetic Association on HFCS. It mirrored in many respects a presentation I attended at the Food and Nutrition Conference in San Diego. The bottom line of both presentations...HFCS is NOT the evil that so many have thought.

Not having studied HFCS in detail until recently, I learned something from these presentations. I have pretty much always believed that this sugar (Yes, I said sugar) is simply an alternate sweetener for today's foods, but I learned more today, including about the actual ratio of fructose to glucose in this, and other, sugars.

While the studies behind the blaming of HFCS indicate some differences, though slight, between fructose and glucose on blood sugar, etc.; these studies used fructose and glucose alone, not in combination. The amounts used in these studies were also much higher than quantities found in a human diet. In fact, in nature most sugars are combinations of monosaccharides (fructose, glucose, etc.), rather than consisting of the single sugars alone. Also, while the term "high fructose corn syrup" sounds like it's made up mostly of fructose, this is not the case.

However, here is the real life difference. Sucrose (table sugar) is 50/50 fructose to glucose. HFCS is actually quite similar. HFCS can be either 42% or 55% fructose with 42% to 53% glucose...not really that much different in the scheme of things. It should also be noted that HFCS has a tiny bit of other sugars (5% or less), as does honey (49% fructose, 43% glucose, 5% other). Another interesting point is that agave nectar, the hot new thing in sweeteners, is 74% fructose. Huh...I thought fructose was "bad"? Maybe it's not after all.

So here are the facts.

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup is really not a good descriptive name for this sweetener.
  • While sources may be different, sugar is sugar is sugar is... All have the same amount of calories per gram and are treated the same in our bodies. Metabolically, our bodies cannot tell the difference between sugars, whether it's HFCS, sucrose, etc.
  • Studies have shown that overall both HFCS and sucrose have the same effect on blood sugar and insulin...no difference.
  • They also have the same effect on satiety.
  • So, if it's not HFCS that is causing us all to fat, what is it?

The use of HFCS began around the same time a lot of other things were happening in our diets. Since the 1970's our lifestyle habits began changing. We started eating out of the home more. We started watching more TV and playing more computer games, thus exercising less. We are busier and are finding ourselves eating while we are doing something else, like working at our desk, watching TV, etc. All these things have been shown to increase the amount we eat overall. (See my article on Distracted Eating.) Since the early 70's, we are consuming about 600 calories more a day! That could lead to adding a pound of weight per week (3500 calories equals a pound).

Hum...maybe we are just eating too much?

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