HFCS (or High Fructose Corn Syrup) and sugar are the two most popular and prevalent caloric sweeteners in the world. They’re both similar and different. Table sugar, which is technically known as sucrose is made from a recipe that’s 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. HFCS on the other hand, is made from a recipe where there’s slightly more fructose, usually 55 percent or more. The other difference is that table sugar/sucrose typically comes from beets and is solid and HFCS comes from corn and is liquid.
HFCS was introduced to the U.S. food market in 1978, and was developed to taste exactly like sugar, which it does. Because HFCS is cheaper and easier for food manufacturers to use, it only took ten years for HFCS to become the dominant caloric sweetener in all products. If you look at the ingredients list for many beverages or for foods that come in a package, it’s highly likely you’ll see corn syrup or HFCS listed as the first or second food in the recipe. The ingredients list is always on the back of the food container. It’s always in the smallest print, and it’s sometimes hidden under a flap. Nonetheless, the ingredients list is the most important information on the package because it’s the one and only way you can figure out if the caloric sweeteners are naturally-occurring or not. This information is NOT ON THE NUTRITION LABEL.
Most people don’t know what to think about HFCS because they don’t know the meaning of fructose. “Fruct” sounds a little like fruit, and that’s a big clue. Fructose is the naturally-occurring sugar found in fruits. Everyone knows we’re supposed to eat more fruits, so the logical but false conclusion is that HFCS is a healthier substance than sugar. Of course, food manufacturers take advantage of this healthy association and do their best to convince consumers that foods made with HFCS are a wholesome, smart choice. There’s nothing wrong with the naturally-occurring fructose that occurs in fruits. Fructose is only problematic when it’s ingested in excessive, unnatural amounts which is especially the case in caloricaly-sweetened juices and sodas.
Another confusing factor is the fact that HFCS has a lower glycemic index (GI) than sugar, and this also falsely makes it seems less harmful. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast foods break down into blood sugar and the size of the insulin response it prompts. So, for example, the higher the concentration of blood sugar, the greater the insulin response, the worse the glycemic index. Unfortunately, the glycemic index only measures the effect of sucrose, not fructose. As you know, the HFCS recipe has more fructose than glucose, and this allows for the destructive overdosing of fructose to go unmeasured or monitored.
It’s important to understand the difference between the way glucose and fructose are absorbed and used by the body. Glucose goes directly into the blood stream where it’s converted (or metabolized) to blood sugar. Blood sugar first gets used for immediate energy needs before any excess gets stored as fat. Fructose, on the other hand, goes straight into the liver where it’s converted to triglycerides, which is fat. There’s no middle metabolizing step. When you ingest unnatural amounts of fructose, you’re putting a huge burden on your liver, and you’re also creating unnatural amounts of fat.
This fat floats around in your blood stream, gets deposited in your fat cells, and attaches to your blood vessels to form plaques. All this formidable fat action goes relatively unnoticed, however, because fructose is under the radar, so to speak. Even worse, triglyceride production accelerates when massive amounts of fructose are consumed over a long period of time. And lastly, high triglyceride levels have also been shown to drag up total cholesterol levels.
It seems illogical and contrary that a fat-free food like HFCS can have such a big impact on fat production, but this is exactly what happens in your body. The fancy technical term is carbohydrate induced lipemia, which is an excessive amount of fat in the blood from carbohydrates. (HFCS is a carbohydrate). Yet dietary fat continues to take the rap as the root cause of obesity and disease. In fact, our culture is so obsessively fat phobic, no one thinks it’s healthy to put a pat of butter on their veggies, but everyone happily slugs down yogurt made with HFCS as a primary ingredient.
Can it possibly be a coincidence that the introduction of HFCS into our food supply in 1978 parallels the dramatic increase in obesity and overweight in our country? Unfortunately for you, the bulk of scientific research attention is still focused on dietary fat and dietary cholesterol, very little is on sugar/sucrose, and even less is on HFCS. That said, the destructive role that excessive amounts of fructose plays in high triglyceride production is slowly coming to light. As it turns out, for example, it’s much more likely that cardiac patients will have high triglycerides than high total cholesterol, and something called the atherogenic profile could become the single best predictor of heart disease risk. This profile is comprised of just two factors: high triglycerides and low HDL (the healthy cholesterol). Atherogenic is a new term that refers to conditions that result in plaque build-up in the blood vessels.
Then there’s metabolic syndrome, which is defined by the presence of five indicators: 1) high blood pressure, 2) high blood sugar, 3) too much fat around the waist, 4) low HDL (the healthy cholesterol) and 5) high triglycerides. Did you notice that high total cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol isn’t on this list, but high triglycerides are? In addition to heart disease, metabolic syndrome puts you at risk for diabetes, stroke, and probably Alzheimer’s.
HFCS poses a potent triple threat because the glucose in it contributes to high blood sugar, the fructose in it contributes to high triglycerides, and both glucose and fructose contribute to fat around the waist.
It will take another 20 years or so for nutritional guidelines from our government to change and for the message about the toxic effects of HFCS to become more mainstream. In the meantime, think and act for yourself and consider just saying no to HFCS. It’s the easiest, healthiest detox program in the world! While you’re at it, get rid of sugar, too, which is no better for you.