We Get Greener Kit Cassingham & her Bigger Half

Why is High Fructose Corn Syrup "Evil"?

My Bigger Half and I avoid high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as much as possible. That's a challenging position to take though because it's ubiquitous! Further, I even reduced my consumption of agave syrup because it has higher fructose content than HFCS. But I've gotten to wondering what's so bad about fructose, especially HFCS. Mr. Skeptic asked me why is HFCS evil, pushing me into more research.

High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of corn syrup and fructose that was processed from corn syrup glucose through an enzymatic process. Because it's cheaper to produce than sugar it's become the ubiquitous sweetener in processed foods.

You find HFCS in soft drinks and beer, soups, bacon, bakery items like bread and cookies, pasta sauce, juices and drinks, & protein bars. There are several types of HFCS, blended for these different uses. Reasons HFCS is replacing sugar in the US is because it's cheaper, easier to transport, and sweeter.

HFCS is made processing corn to corn starch and then to corn syrup, which is mostly glucose. Enzymes are added that convert most of the glucose into fructose. This resulting fructose is then blended with pure corn syrup to giving us high fructose corn syrup.

The problem seems to that it changes the balance of sugar in our diets. Concern arises from the correlation of rising obesity and increased use of HFCS in the US. But for every complaint there is a counter, both sides pointing to peer-reviewed journals that support their claims. Oh, what a sticky mess!

Reading summaries of various reviews I can see why nothing has been concluded about the "evils" of HFCS. Is there a problem? Is it the HFCS itself, or does the processing introduce something that's the problem? Or does the increased use of HFCS in food correlate with the "Super Size Me" era and the increased quantities of food that's causing the problems that are often attributed to HFCS? Or does consuming HFCS exacerbate problems caused by dietary deficiencies, like of minerals or vitamins, for starters?

After reading numerous articles on the subject I'm more alarmed than ever at the interactions of fructose with body chemistry. High sugar consumption isn't good for us, but high fructose consumption seems to be worse. It's startling to me to see so many ramifications of fructose consumption.

Cigarette and tobacco companies fought the evidence that tobacco and smoking are unhealthy for people. Similar tactics and logic are being used by manufacturers and users of HFCS today. Rather than ignore the possible risks, it seems prudent to me to err on the side of caution.

Reducing your intake of HFCS can only be good for you, even if it turns out to not be "evil". Avoiding HFCS means eating less processed foods (packaged dinners, soda, and canned juice/drinks) and eating more fresh/fresh frozen fruits and vegetables -- more whole foods.

The bottom line for me is that the simpler a food is the better it's going to tend to be for you. HFCS isn't simple, so by my approach here, it's not good for me.





Some particularly interesting reading I found:
http://www.westonaprice.org/The-Double-Danger-of-High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup.html
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-fructose-corn-syrup/an01588



Read more on the subject at the follow-up article More on the Evils of HFCS.

Comments

At my house, it's the other way around. Hubby buys into every negative thing he hears about regarding food, every single government conspiracy theory...He's just positive that canola oil is part of the government plot to kill us all...

I'm the one that tries to be a little more balanced with these things!

But I absolutely agree that the HFCS is iffy enough, the use should be avoided as much as possible. There is a lot of evidence out there.

Kathi, Florida at April 24, 2010 1:30 PM

Kathi,

Funny you should mention the canola oil situation. I've just started hearing this week that canola oil may not be good for us. I'm researching right now the pros and cons of saturated fats and found a mention that polyunsaturated fats can turn toxic at high temperatures (like for frying).

Government plot? I don't tend to go for plot notions, but things aren't as straightforward with nutritional issues as the government would have us believe. But, I do think that's even a learning curve issue.

Mr. Skeptic doesn't like my answer here, so I will be modifying this article with a bit more meat. Gotta keep my skeptic happy so I can keep growing and learning. :~)

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 24, 2010 2:11 PM

Kit,
Is agave syrup different than "organic blue agave"? I just recently started to use blue agave to try and cut down on sugar and was shocked to see your comment on agave syrup containing more HF than HFCS, so I hope the syrup is something else entirely. I immediately went to read the label and see if it mentioned anything bad, but it doesn't so I'm hoping you can clarify. I absolutely LOVE your blog and will look forward to reading it. Thank you so much for helping us all to get greener.

GJ at April 24, 2010 3:26 PM

GJ,

I too was shocked to learn that agave, which I think is the same thing as the "organic blue agave" you are using, is higher in high fructose than HFCS. I learned it after buying a gallon of both the light and the dark.

I Googled the question for myself, after hearing the "bad news", and confirmed it to my satisfaction. So I cut back, but I still use it with molasses to make my steel cut oat, whole wheat bread. I figure 1T of agave syrup in a loaf of bread can't be *too* bad. Let's hope I'm not wrong on that.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 24, 2010 3:58 PM

Part of the reason sugar is so expensive in the US is that it is kept artificially high in price, mostly to protect the sugar cane growers in Florida. Though I am sure the sugar beet growers do not mind the higher prices either. Ethanol would be much cheaper if it could be imported with out the "sugar tax" on it. I have considered having my little lunch box of a car (xB) converted to a mixed fuel capability, so that I can use the 85% ethanol that is available locally (and much cheaper). Of course part of the cheaper is the tax incentive to make it in the first place. Oh what a tangled web our dearly beloved Fed gov weaves.

Don at April 24, 2010 4:35 PM

Great info about HFCS. I personally am diabetic so I try to keep away from HFCS, but I also stay away from the most of the fake sugars as well. When I can I sweeten with whole or dried fruit or even applesauce and when I really do need a sweetner I do something crazy...I use real sugar, just not as much as is called for. I am all for eating as natural as possible, then when you do need a bit of sugar (can anyone say chocolate?) it is not so bad for you.

Debbie at April 25, 2010 7:13 PM

I watched a show on UCTV called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. Robert H. Lustig, MD shows how fructose is broken down in the liver like ethanol. I believe it is worth a look. The show can be seen at: http://uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16717

Terrell at April 26, 2010 9:33 PM

And to prime the pump to get you to go watch that video (90 minutes long, roughly) here's the teaser; "Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin."

Thanks for sharing that, Terrell.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 26, 2010 9:43 PM

In addition to the video, there's a transcript of a half-hour radio interview on ABC Australia's Health Report with Robert Lustig, which I found to be a bit of an eye-opener at the time. It's a good read, too.
The transcript is here, where you can also download an MP3 file of the interview: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/healthreport/stories/2007/2104024.htm

Bernard in Brisbane, Australia at April 26, 2010 10:18 PM

My wife and I have subscribed to the idea of minimizing our intake of HFCS. It is nearly impossible to do! My daughter is allergic to peanuts, so we have to look at ingredients list on everything we buy, so if it has HFCS (or Peanuts), we avoid it like the plague. Of course I do indulge on sweets so I can't totally avoid it but I am trying.

Another great movie to check out is "Fat Head". It counters many of the things in "Super Size Me" and uses real science instead of sensationalist documentary.

Mike in New Hampshire at April 27, 2010 9:14 AM

If the obesity and diabetes issues aren't evil enough, how about mercury contamination? There was an article in the Washington Post last year about mercury in HFCF and in products containing HFCF as the first or second ingredient. I'm amazed that it isn't a bigger news item, unless the industry has buried it.

Dessa in TN at April 27, 2010 10:50 AM

I avoid HFCS for a different reason -- I am highly allergic to corn, especially corn sugars. I'm also a proponent of "natural" i.e. minimally processed, organic, non-GMO foods, as I believe our alimentary system evolved to expect natural foods.

Jen Dawes at April 27, 2010 1:20 PM

Mike, I'd not heard of "Fat Head"; sounds like something I'll be adding to my list of movies to see. I chuckled at your comments about "Super Size Me"; I thought dissing Michael Moore's movies was even more unpopular than shopping at WalMart!

I was reminded of one way to avoid HFCS, and other "evil" items, was to shop the outside edges of the store where the whole foods are sold. If you avoid the inside isles you'll avoid processed foods. Sounds like another great article for later.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 27, 2010 10:03 PM

Dessa, I had caught only a hint of the mercury problem in HFCS during my reading. I didn't read that part carefully enough to comment on it, other than to say I thought only some HFCS was contaminated that way. That only makes it worse, in my mind, because you may not know which HFCS is worse for you than usual!

Yep, another reason to avoid it. For Mr. Skeptic I will come up with my list of pros and cons on the subject, just as soon as I can stay in the office long enough to do so.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 27, 2010 10:26 PM

Jen, don't even get me started on corn. After watching "Food Inc" I started getting more radical about our food. I'm looking to get away from Industrialized Food, like corn, beef, chicken, etc.

-Kit

Kit Cassingham at April 27, 2010 10:30 PM

Kit et al--I haven't read all the comments and will have to come back to them. If I'm rehashing something, sorry!

First, I don't think I eat anything with HFCS. That said, and this is from memory, HFCS is about 1/2 glucose and 1/2 fructose (Think it's actually closer to 45%/55%). Fructose is also known as Fruit sugar since it is the main sugar in a lot of fruits.

However, cane (and beet)sugar is essentially pure sucrose, a disaccharide (double sugar) composed of the 2 simple sugars glucose and fructose. Digestive enzymes start in the mouth, and end in the stomach and intestine, to break down sucrose into glucose and frutose, ie almost the same as HFCS.

So why avoid HFCS as opposed to any other saccharide? The problem, it seems to me, is added sugar; too much added sugar.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar

http://www.drgourmet.com -- Dr. Harlan is an MD that loves to cook, and has a lot to say on this issue.

Best regards,

Riley

PS It might surprise you to know that a lot of commercial honey is essentially HFCS--they feed it to the bees, then sell it to you.

Riley at April 29, 2010 2:10 PM

The big concern with HFCS is that it is not digested and absorbed in the stomach and thus bypasses the link from the stomach to the brain. It is only absorbed in the small intestine. If you have a craving for carbs/quick energy and you eat or drink something made with HFCS, your brain never gets the message that you have consumed the carbs unless you drink or eat so much that you are physically full. HFCS not only sweetens a lot of things that aren't good for us, the use of it also is a cause of overeating.

Greg at May 5, 2010 2:52 PM

Add to that, Greg, that it's only processed in the liver, not every cell like glucose is, and leaves fat deposits. Naturally occurring fructose absorption is at least slowed when the source is something like fruit, because there is fiber along with it, and fiber is the brakes to fructose absorption.

Fructose in and of itself isn't evil, only the way it's used in so much of what we eat, taking control of its consumption out of our hands to an extent. The quantities we consume fructose is the biggest problem here.

Kit Cassingham at May 7, 2010 7:33 AM

Mrs. Kit (nice blog by the way),

Don't worry about high fructose corn syrup. It highly unlikely that it can have a different effect on the body than sugar. Why? When it hits your stomach, it immediately breaks up to its component parts (55% fructose and 45% glucose). (hydro-cutting is acid catalyzed sulfuric acid in the stomach). These components are identical to that of sugar (50/50 split of the same chemicals). There is no known interaction between glucose and fructose in the human body. Therefore the minor split of quantities is meaningless.

Long story short, there is no evidence of any form that HFCS is any worse for you than sugar (with epidemiological studies hovering on the border of statistical significance far below tenability and clinical experiments being decisively negative). The basic facts that I just listed make it highly unlikely to impossible that there is one (the contamination aspect is a separate issue of quality). If you want to argue against fructose in general, then you have to include sugar, which has fully 91% of the fructose of HFCS.

I will agree that we use too many sweeteners in the Western world. Things are just fine without the extra scoop of sugar. However, pointing the finger at HFCS simply functions as a distraction. Replacing corn syrup with sugar may improve taste, but it has no affect on health.

Ben of Houston at May 8, 2010 9:24 AM

A big reason HFCS is cheap and ubiquitous is the insane subsidy the Federal government provides to corn. As a result, we are producing far more corn than we need or can reasonably use.

Fred Condo at May 8, 2010 5:33 PM

Clearly, the jury is still out on the science of the effects of HFCS on our bodies.
I propose avoiding it for similar reasons that many people are avoiding diamonds, or at least verifying they are conflict free.
After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I am convinced enough that the entire corn industry is too big, too secretive, and holding entirely too much power in our country. I liked Pollan's book more than the King Corn documentary, but both are scary.
Also, SuperSize Me was by Morgan Spurlock, not Michael Moore. I think Moore actually lost weight recently. Supersize me certainly had it's sensationalistic aspects, but is indisputable as a graphic display of the effects our food can have on us.

Jeremy Jerome at May 11, 2010 10:11 AM

Kit:

Great topic, and one of my pet peeves. I've posted an article I wrote for the Bangor Daily News in our Healthy Living Special Section last year, one I researched quite heavily. While it isn't likely the topic-ending article on HFCS, it sums up much of what's out there in one place. I've uploaded the article at:
http://www.fitz42.net/stuff/BDN-HFCS.pdf

It isn't the "high" and it isn't the "corn syrup." It's the fructose. We need fructose, but the problem is that HFCS is in everything and we get way too much of it. The Sweet Surprise folks (Corn Refiners Association) tells us in their TV spots that it's nutritionally the same as sugar, but they leave out key facts. I won't belabor them here; the article sums it all up.

Best,
-David M. Fitzpatrick

David M. Fitzpatrick at May 11, 2010 12:07 PM

So we thought we could avoid HFCS by reading the label. Not so easy anymore. The "HFCS Council" has lobbied their way through the FDA and USDA so that labels now can just read "added sugars" so no particular sugar-substance has to be called out. FAIL!

Read about food labels and how to spot hidden sugars:
Hidden Sugars

Kit Cassingham at January 19, 2011 12:30 PM

I just learned I got it all wrong. Well, not wrong so much as they have found the organ that seems to have the biggest reaction to how fructose is processed, or impacts the body. The brain.
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110209131951.htm

Kit Cassingham at February 10, 2011 9:21 PM
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