First, let’s get clear on definitions for sugar and high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS). Table sugar, which is technically known as “sucrose,” is made from a recipe that’s 50% glucose and 50% fructose. High Fructose Corn Syrup, on the other hand, is made from a recipe of 45% glucose and 55% fructose. The other difference is that table sugar/sucrose typically comes from beets and HFCS comes from corn. HFCS was developed to taste like sugar, and it does. It was introduced to the U.S. food market in 1978, and in less than 10 years half of all calorically sweetened food and drink products in the U.S. were made with HFCS.
This is especially true for so-called low-fat, healthy foods like yogurts, juice drinks, snack bars, and cereals. If you take the time to look at the ingredients list of foods that come in a package, it’s highly likely you’ll see corn syrup or HFCS listed as one of the first three foods in the recipe. The ingredients list is always on the back of the food package. It’s always in the smallest print, and it’s sometimes hidden under a flap. Nonetheless, this is the most important information on the package because it’s the one and only way you can figure out what you’re putting in your mouth.
Because of the word “fructose,” people aren’t exactly sure what to think of HFCS. Fructose is a natural sweetening substance found in fruits, and everyone knows we’re supposed to eat lots of fruits to be healthy. Keep in mind this article is focused on the unnatural, excessive amount of fructose that’s added to our food supply by food manufacturers and is not concerned with the fructose that occurs naturally in fruits.
Of course, food manufacturers take advantage of the healthy association with fruit and do their best to convince consumers that fructose is a good, smart choice as a sweetening agent. Perhaps you’ve seen the current TV ad campaign where two young, attractive people come to the conclusion that HFCS is okay. It is, after all, “natural.” It has the same calories as sugar, and it’s marketed as being processed by the body the same way as sugar.
Another confusing factor that makes it hard to get a handle on HFCS is the concept of the glycemic index, which is a measure of how fast some carbohydrates break down into blood sugar and prompt an insulin response. The higher the concentration of blood sugar, the bigger the glycemic index.
While the glycemic index is a useful tool for predicting insulin response, it only provides a partial, incomplete picture of what’s going on with HFCS because the glycemic index doesn’t register or measure fructose. Consequently, foods made with HFCS can have a relatively low glycemic index because the 55% fructose in the HFCS recipe is ignored. This creates the false and misleading impression that fructose is healthier than sugar and that it’s okay for diabetics.
It’s important to understand that fructose and glucose metabolize differently. Glucose goes directly into the blood stream where it’s converted to blood sugar, and fructose goes directly into the liver where it’s converted to trigylcerides. A triglyceride is a liquid form of fat. So when you eat or drink foods made with HFCS, 55% is converted to fat molecules.
The fat floats around in your bloodstream, gets deposited in your fat cells, and attaches to your blood vessels to form plaques. This action all goes relatively unnoticed, however, because fructose is under the radar, so to speak. Even more, triglyceride production accelerates when massive amounts of fructose are consumed over a long period of time. And lastly, high triglyceride levels have also been shown to drag up total cholesterol levels.
Here are the current guidelines for triglyceride levels, which are measured by taking a blood test:
Normal is less than 150
Borderline high is 150 to 199
High is 200 to 499
Very high is 500 or greater
It seems illogical and contrary that a fat-free food like HFCS can have such a big impact on fat production, but this is exactly what happens in your body. The technical term is “carbohydrate induced lipemia,” which is an excessive amount of fat in the blood from carbohydrates. Yet dietary fat continues to take the rap as the root cause of obesity and disease. In fact, our culture is so obsessively fat phobic, no one thinks it’s healthy to put a pat of butter on their veggies, but everyone happily slugs down yogurt made with HFCS as a primary ingredient.
Between 1976 and 1980, before experts started telling us to stop eating fat, one out of every three was overweight. The national obesity rate was around 13% and the national overweight rate was around 30%. During the next 30 years the average national fat consumption dropped from 40% to 34%, a huge, statistically significant change, but now two out of every three are overweight.
As you probably know, the national obesity rate recently jumped to 33%, and the national overweight rate skyrocketed to 66%. The universe must be playing a big cosmic joke on us because we’re eating less fat but getting fatter! Can it possibly be a coincidence that the introduction of HFCS into our food supply in 1978 parallels the dramatic increase in obesity and overweight in our country?
Unfortunately for you, the bulk of scientific research attention is still focused on dietary fat and cholesterol, very little is on sugar/sucrose, and even less is on HFCS. That said, the destructive role that excessive amounts of fructose plays in high triglyceride production is slowly coming to light.
As it turns out, for example, it’s much more likely that cardiac patients will have high triglycerides than high total cholesterol, and something called the “athrogenic profile” could become the single best predictor of heart disease risk. This profile is comprised of just two factors: high triglycerides and low HDL (the healthy cholesterol). “Athrogenic” is a new term that refers to conditions that result in plaque build-up in the blood vessels.
Then there’s metabolic syndrome, which is defined by the presence of five indicators: 1) high blood pressure, 2) high blood sugar, 3) too much fat around the waist, 4) low HDL (the healthy cholesterol), and 5) high tryglicerides. Did you notice that high total cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol isn’t on this list, but high triglycerides are? In addition to heart disease, metabolic syndrome puts you at risk for diabetes, stroke, and probably Alzheimer’s.
HFCS poses a potent triple threat because the glucose in it contributes to high blood sugar, the fructose in it contributes to high triglycerides, and both glucose and fructose contribute to fat around the waist.
It will take another 20 years or so for nutritional guidelines from our government to change and for the message about the toxic effects of HFCS to become more mainstream. In the meantime, think and act for yourself and consider just saying no to HFCS. It’s the easiest, healthiest detox program in the world! While you’re at it, think about getting rid of sugar, too, which is no better for you.