The High-Fructose Corn Syrup Debate

I’ve always avoided high-fructose corn syrup.  But I’ve also always avoided sugar, period.  I was never sure if I should avoid one more than another.  Instead, I aim to choose items that are in their whole forms, like bulk nuts and other fresh ingredients that I make into something with my own hands.  However, avoiding the topic couldn’t last forever.  I decided to organize my own thoughts on the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) debate.

What is sugar?
Before we can attack HFCS, let’s think for a minute about what sugar is and what it does to our bodies.  First of all, sugar as we know it today generally translates to beet sugar or sugarcane.  The key to the definition is that these food sugars are monosaccharides (simple carbohydrates) such as glucose and fructose.  Simple carbohydrates chemically break down quickly for sudden energy release from the split bonds.  Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are known to be more complicated to break down and therefore release energy more slowly but steadily.  Sucrose is a disaccharide, with one glucose linked to one fructose.  Sugars are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen based.

Sugar in America.
Sugar has a bad association in America with diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.  We’ve been consuming sugar globally for hundreds of years and, in some cultures, for thousands of years, but the consumption rates in America have skyrocketed.  This article demonstrates the drastic increase of sugar consumption per person per year in America over the last two centuries.  Most data indicates a steep rise in American sugar consumption with the closure of the Civil War with two dramatic drops at the time of the World Wars.  Some studies have predicted that, based on the current trend line in consumption data, Americans will be consuming essentially ‘100% sugar’ by the year 2606 (based on a 95% goodness of fit and an assumed average caloric intake).  And while Americans are told they should be consuming no more than 100 to 150 calories per day of added sugar, they may not realize this includes sugar naturally found in food products.  For example, dairy products have lactose.  Fruits are actually very high in the sugar fructose.  Yet, while obesity continues to rise, it may not actually be sugar consumption that is to blame.  Studies find a more intense correlation between lifestyles and weight gain.  It is likely that sugar, high in calories and added to the vast majority of American foods, has a way of bloating one’s calorie count without much detection.  I guess the argument can be made that it’s in everything, so we eat it in place of healthier alternatives, and so we get fat.  But we don’t have to buy the sugary stuff!  We do because we crave it.  No one made you buy that candy or that dessert or even that stew that had nearly undetectable added sugar – it’s just what your tastes are accustomed to!  Because we actively partake in activities that maintain a sugary demand in our country.  Sugar doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but we have diverged from the evolved eating habits of our prehistoric ancestors.  Besides, anything is bad in excess.

What is high-fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is, chemically-speaking, essentially the same product as table sugar.  The difference is the glucose and the fructose in HFCS is unbounded, whereas it’s bonded in regular sugar.  Sugar can only be grown in the more tropical climates, thus its production is highly limited in the US and its tariffs for importing are high.  HFCS, on the other hand, is extremely cheap, very obtainable in a corn-dominated country, and highly soluble.  So what’s everyone complaining about?

Debunking accusations agains HFCS.
There are a number of studies that show HFCS is no more obesity-causing than regular sugar, but none of them deny that Americans eat too much sugar.  That’s the main source of the issue.  But people tend to blame companies for slipping HFCS (the cheap alternative to sugar) in everything to make the products taste better.  That means they sell more for less investment.  But does that mean using sugar instead would change anything?  The price.  Our tastes?  No.  Our sugar cravings?  No.  Therefore our obesity problem?  Probably not, unless some actual lifestyle changes were made.  So what other arguments are out there?  Well, there’s the one about the creation of HFCS being synthetic and artificial and therefore bad.  Well isn’t anything we make or do technically unnatural?  What is baking bread or scrambling an egg?  It’s just inducing chemical reactions.  I used to be opposed to “chemicals” until my friend pointed out that everything is a chemical.  And because the two kinds of sweeteners are chemical twins, what is the problem?  Another argument is that our brains being unable to register HFCS as sweet and therefore we consume more than we would of sugar.  In this article, a study is reviewed about the hypothalamus in the brain which detects consumption, calories, and other levels and which would be responsible for detecting sweeteners.  The study concluded that glucose and fructose do affect the brain differently, but that the boundedness or unboundedness does not have a proven affect on how they do this.  While reading this article, I couldn’t help but notice the author’s reference to carbonyls like they were some obvious health threat.  Carbonyls are a type of carbon monoxide ligand; ligands are directly connected to receptors in the body.  Some ligands are antagonists that block receptors.  Metal carbonyls are notorious for their toxicity and ability to block important oxygen bondings.  The carbonyls found in HFCS have a bad rap simply because a connection is believed to exist between the carbonyls present and diabetes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean obesity, now does it?  But what I find even more interesting (and explained extremely thoroughly in this article) is that these carbonyls and this unbounded property of HFCS doesn’t mean anything, as far as sodas are concerned.  The carbonation in soda in fact hydrolyzes up to about 90% of the bounded sugars so that they are now unbounded and, quite frankly, now identical to HFCS before you’ve even opened the can.

Conclusion
HFCS is overdramatized without people fully understanding the facts first.  There is also not enough conclusions about the topic, especially considering the amount of conflicting data from animal studies, etc., that currently exists.  Maybe non-carbonated products are worse in HFCS than in regular sugar, but I simply don’t know and not enough long-term data exists yet on the health effects.  I do, however, stand by the fact that we consume too much of whatever you want to call it (any combination of fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose,…) and that Americans need to become more active.  That is the problem leading to the obesity epidemic: CALORIE CONSUMPTION >> CALORIE EXPENDITURE.

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