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What Not To Eat: High Fructose Corn Syrup Edition
I suppose that I can't put this off any longer. The discussion about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can really get people riled up. At virtually every single talk that I give, someone in the audience asks about it. Something seemingly simple like, "What about high fructose corn syrup?"

More About High Fructose Corn Syrup
It is estimated that nearly 7% of daily caloric consumption in the United States is from high fructose corn syrup. This estimate has been labeled as conservative, with other studies indicating that over 10% of daily calories come from fructose in the U.S. today. That's a whole lot of calories! 

Bending the Truth with "Experts"
I am interviewed by the media fairly regularly. Often the topic is something controversial, and that makes sense. It's difficult for news organizations to get people to pay attention and contentious topics do stand out. Stories about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), fast food and kooky weight loss products are popular, as you might expect, and these almost always result in emails or comments criticizing me for one reason or another. I don't have a problem with this. It is, after all, my opinion and others are entitled to theirs.


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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. That said, sugar in any form in the first few ingredients of a food should caution you away from eating it as well.

A just-released article in the journal Metabolism (doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2011.09.013) approaches the question acutely, measuring the reactions of 40 healthy men and women to drinking equal amounts of soft drinks sweetened with either High Fructose Corn Syrup or sucrose.

The men and women recruited for the study were between 18 and 52 and had no history of hypoglycemia, gout, kidney or liver dysfunction, diabetes, or high blood glucose levels. On two occasions the participants visited the research lab and were given 24 ounces of either regular Dr. Pepper, sweetened with HFCS, or the sucrose-sweetened Dr. Pepper (called "Heritage Dr. Pepper" and marketed as "sweetened with real sugar"). Before having the soft drinks the researchers tested their blood pressure and heart rate, then their blood was drawn as a baseline sample.

After drinking the soft drinks their blood pressure, heart rate and additional blood samples were taken at 15 minutes, 30, 60 and 90 minutes and an additional four times up to 6 hours, at which time the study period ended. Any urine passed during the test period was also collected. The researchers were then able to chart various chemical reactions in the body over time.

What they discovered is very interesting and potentially concerning. When the researchers took into consideration the different levels of fructose and glucose in the HFCS versus the sucrose (which must be broken down by the body into fructose and glucose), blood glucose levels were significantly higher when the participants drank the HFCS-containing soft drink than when they drank the sucrose-sweetened soft drink. Systolic blood pressures (the top number of the blood pressure measurement) were also higher in those who drank the HFCS-sweetened beverage. Gout sufferers should especially note that when they drank the HFCS-sweetened beverage, the participants' serum uric acid levels were also significantly higher.

What this means for you

The researchers note that the participants in this study were all fairly young and healthy and noted that "their responses may have been less dramatic than older individuals" or those who are more at risk of metabolic problems, such as those with diabetes or metabolic syndrome. They also note that their study only looks at the immediate effects of drinking the HFCS-sweetened beverage, questioning the long-term effects of drinking large amounts of these beverages regularly, as do so many Americans. For me, the take-home message remains the same: if it contains High Fructose Corn Syrup, put it back on the shelf.

First posted: February 8, 2012