There’s been a lot of debate lately about the possible plight of high fructose corn syrup in the American diet. With obesity enduringly on the rise, experts argue about whether the corn-derived sweetener is partially to blame. There’s also suspicion that consumption of HFCS contributes to cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and diabetes, too. Yikes.
After all, it’s in everything – ranging from obvious culprits like ketchup, BBQ sauce, candy, chocolate bars and juice cocktails to items marketed to be healthy, like breakfast cereal (including Special K and other diet cereals), flavored yogurt, soup, pasta sauce, salad dressing, baked goods, white bread and granola/protein bars. Even some 100% whole grain breads (like Pepperidge Farm’s and Sara Lee’s) have it mixed in. There’s also HFCS in lunch meat. Apparently, Americans even need their meat sweetened (yuck).
High fructose corn syrup is tough to avoid – but is there any harm in consuming it?
A lot of experts have argued over the years that HFCS is perfectly safe. It’s similar to regular sugar from a chemical standpoint; but what happens after it enters the body? Is it digested differently? Or, since it’s not exactly naturally occurring, does it mess up our inner biochemistry? These questions are the reason behind the debate.
A 2010 study at Princeton University linked HFCS consumption to “considerably more weight gain.” Lab rats were fed water sweetened with either high fructose corn syrup or regular table sugar, and then given the same amount of rat chow. Every single rodent that munched on the corn syrup gained more weight – worse, the levels of HFCS given were far below those in soft drinks.
Princeton also did a second long-term study that observed the effects of HFCS-fed rats over six months. The rats fed corn syrup were plagued by visceral fat and abnormal weight gain and signs of metabolic syndrome. Researchers stated, “These rats aren’t just getting fat; they’re demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides.”
In applying this study to a hypothetical human population, gorging on corn syrup laden foods will likely cause you to gain weight, particularly around the belly, and put you at a greater risk for diabetes, obesity, and fucked up triglycerides. It makes you fat, unhealthy and sick.
The craziest thing about the study is that the results were in comparison to rats drinking sucrose, or basic table sugar. The control group was drinking sugar and the weight gain of the HFCS group was significantly higher.
Why is HFCS worse than sugar? Most people think that a calorie is a calorie, and a gram of added sugar is a gram of added sugar. But HFCS and sugar are not made equal; naturally occurring sugars have to be metabolically broken down in order to be used. Therefore, this step serves as a small-scale buffer between sugar used for energy and sugar stored as fat. Corn syrup, however, is so over processed that it is ready to be utilized immediately; if you drink or eat too much of it, its stored as fat by default.
We use corn syrup because it’s cheap; the U.S. has super-high import tariffs on sugar and corn is a huge gold-mine industry lately. A lot of pro-HFCS ‘experts’ have some serious conflicts of interest (like the Corn Refiners Association, for example – a.k.a. the people who make the stuff) and they’re the ones rooting for its safety.
As with other sketchy additives like MSG and Aspartame, the FDA and USDA aren’t the best people to trust.
Objective, third party academic and scientific institutions, however, are the way to go. The easiest way to avoid HFCS is to read labels and avoid processed food as much as possible. The toughest corn syrup trap are condiments like salad dressing, ketchup and bbq sauce; thankfully all can be made (and made better) at home without the HFCS and other artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives.
Next week I’ll be posting recipes to make your own ketchup and bbq sauce. What do you think about high fructose corn syrup?