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HFCS not the same as table sugar
The Corn Refiners Association (and others) would have you believe that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is essentially the same as table sugar (sucrose) and that your body processes them the same way. The research has been mixed on the subject, with some studies indicating that HFCS contributes to obesity and others not. In the absence of strong evidence, my stance on HFCS is that its presence on a food label indicates a highly-processed food that you shouldn't be eating anyway.
Sugary Beverages and Your Health
I've been saying for years that folks should avoid drinking soda if only because of the extra calories. In the last few years a fair bit of research has been done on sugar-sweetened beverages and their contribution not only to weight gain but also conditions such as Metabolic Syndrome, gout, heart disease, high blood pressure and poor cholesterol scores.
No Added Sugar
In the last several decades we here in the United States have eaten more and more sugar, mostly in the form of "added sugars." These sweeteners are usually in the form of sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup and are intended to make highly-processed foods taste better (or more accurately, sweeter). The most recent dietary data we have shows that more Americans over the age of 2 consume almost 16% of their total daily calories in the form of these added sugars.
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Humans appear to be programmed to prefer sweet foods. One theory is that sweet-tasting foods are normally higher in calories than other foods, which would make them more desirable to our hunter-gatherer forebears, whose diets were much more unpredictable. Practically speaking, however, it's the pleasure of that sweet taste which draws us to sweet foods - and that pleasure is often compared to drug addiction.
Researchers in France recently compared rats' response to saccharin, an intensely sweet and calorie-free sweetener, with their response to cocaine, which is known to be highly addictive. Rats (as well as other mammals) are known to prefer sweet foods just as humans do. Given a free choice between cocaine and the sweet taste of saccharin, which would they choose?
They devised a test which taught the rats which of two independent levers in their cages would yield a reward of either an intravenous dose of cocaine or 20 seconds of access to saccharin-containing water (PLoS ONE 2(8): e698). (Plain water was available at all times.) Surprisingly, when the animals were free to choose their reward, they consistently chose the saccharin water over the cocaine.
The scientists were intrigued. When the rats were able to choose between cocaine and plain water, they chose cocaine, so it was clear that the issue was not access to plain water. Perhaps the rats had been desensistized to the cocaine through the training period, or maybe the dose of cocaine was not high enough to be stronger than the sweet taste of the saccharin. Accordingly, they provided increasing doses of cocaine while keeping the saccharin levels in the water the same. And still the rats preferred the saccharin water.
Perhaps it was that the saccharin water stimulated the pleasure center more quickly than the intravenous cocaine. So they added a delay to the pressing of the saccharin-yielding lever so that there were increasing amounts of time between the pressing of the lever and the delivery of the saccharin - up to and surpassing the estimated delay between the pressing of the lever for cocaine and its perceived physical effects on the rats. And still the rats preferred the saccharin water.
I don't ordinarily report on studies in rats, but this was so interesting I couldn't resist sharing it with you. In studies of addiction, it's been demonstrated that both sucrose (a natural sweetener) and saccharine stimulate brain chemistry in the same way that cocaine does. However, cocaine is known to be much more powerful in its brain stimulation than saccharin. Even so, a preference for that sweet taste of saccharin could override the lure of cocaine. Food for thought.
First posted: November 14, 2007