High fructose corn syrup, the corn-based sweetener found in everything from yogurt, sports drinks, salad dressing, cereal, juice, soda, frozen foods, soup, ketchup and bread, has caused quite a controversy in the past few years. High fructose corn syrup has been linked to obesity, diabetes and overeating. Labeled as “natural” on some food packaging, critics of the corn-based sweetener say it’s anything but.
Makers of high fructose corn syrup argue that all this negative talk is bunk. They contend high fructose corn syrup is no different from ordinary table sugar and consequently no more harmful to our health. The debate has made consumers more than just a little confused. Has the ubiquitous sweetener put us on the edge of a national health crisis or is as safe as the sugar we put in our morning cup of coffee?
While the jury is still out on the overall impact of high fructose corn syrup, one thing is certain: manufacturers’ claims that their product is no different from other sugar-based sweeteners are simplistic and ignore ongoing research which ultimately may conclude otherwise.
Some myths we hear from makers of the controversial sweetener include:
Myth: High Fructose Corn Syrup and Table Sugar Are Chemically the Same
Fact: While it’s true that table sugar and high fructose corn syrup have close to equal amounts of fructose and glucose, manufacturing of the corn-sweetener results in the fructose being separated or “unbound” from glucose. Studies have shown our bodies process unbound fructose differently from fructose bound with glucose.
A study by Rutgers University found a dramatic percentage of “reactive carbonyls” in sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Reactive carbonyl compounds are considered likely triggers of diabetes.
Myth: High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Digested Like All Other Sugars
Fact: Fructose bypasses normal routes of digestion and is metabolized by the liver. The liver quickly converts the fructose to fat which, unlike glucose, is stored in nearby tissues or within the liver itself. While this process may not cause obesity, it may accelerate the rate by which people already suffering from obesity gain both fat and extra pounds.
Other studies have found that liver-metabolized fructose can impair release of insulin and the enzyme leptin, both of which send signals to the brain that we’ve had enough to eat.
Myth: High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Natural
Fact: Manufacturing of the corn sweetener is a complicated endeavor requiring the use of enzymes and a series of chemical processes. Processing of any food may cause fundamental changes in its composition and subjects it to the potential of contamination.
Case in point: in two separate and recent studies, a significant number of brand-named foods containing high fructose corn syrup were found to be contaminated with mercury.
What to Do?
For now, a safe bet is to avoid high fructose corn syrup and all refined sugar whenever you can. A nice piece of fresh fruit will satisfy your sweet tooth while delivering vitamins, fiber and other nutrients along with it.
When shopping for packaged foods, products which have high fructose corn syrup listed as the first or second ingredient are better put back on the shelves.