Diabetes Self-Management Blog

Last week (in "A Foray Into Fructose"), we learned how fructose, or fruit sugar, may be linked to certain health conditions, such as high lipid levels, gout, kidney stones, and irritable bowel syndrome. What we haven’t looked at yet, but will this week, is a substance that has just about as bad a reputation as trans fat, or pesticides, or even global warming: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, for short).

HFCS was introduced into the American diet back in the 1970’s. As its name implies, this sweetener is made from corn, and is made up of varying amounts of fructose, depending on whether it’s used in, say, soft drinks or baked goods. HFCS is similar in sweetness to sucrose (table sugar), making it a good choice for food manufacturers.

You may be wondering why a food manufacturer would use HFCS over regular sugar. Well, there are several reasons for this:

  • HFCS is generally cheaper to use than table sugar.
  • HFCS prolongs the shelf life of food products.
  • HFCS maintains moisture and freshness.

So why is a pretty innocuous-sounding substance at the source of so much controversy?

HFCS and Obesity
Over the past several years, the media has hyped up stories linking the rise in obesity in the U.S. to a high intake of HFCS, primarily in the form of sweetened beverages. According to the American Dietetic Association, the claim is that fructose alters “hormonal patterns” that promote appetite and storage of fat in the body, compared to regular sugar and other types of sweeteners.

No one’s arguing that HFCS is a source of additional, empty calories in the diet and that we need to cut down on our intake. About half of the added sugar intake of the average American comes from HFCS. And soft drink intake has significantly increased over the past 50 years. What’s the main ingredient in soft drinks? HFCS. Therefore, with obesity rates climbing, and soft drink intake climbing, it’s not too hard to see how the two might be linked. However, the catch is that no good research has been done proving that HFCS somehow alters metabolism to increase appetite and promote fat storage.

The causes of obesity are complex and likely multifold. It would be easier if we could just point the finger at consuming too much HFCS, or too much fat, or our inactive lifestyles. Those are very likely culprits, but they aren’t the only ones. At this point, there isn’t enough credible evidence that HFCS is a cause of obesity.

HFCS and Diabetes
Last year, researchers at Rutgers University concluded that HFCS may contribute to the development of diabetes in both adults and children. They looked at 11 different sodas that contained HFCS and found high levels of reactive carbonyls in them. Reactive carbonyls are substances that can cause tissue damage, are found in high levels in people with diabetes, and may be at least partially responsible for inducing diabetes. They also discovered that adding antioxidants from tea to these beverages reduced the number of reactive carbonyls and that these tea substances may help reduce the “toxic” effect of soft drinks.

You can imagine that the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and other food industry members have hotly disputed all the so-called “evidence” that HFCS causes health problems. While the evidence may not yet be strong enough to truly support claims of obesity and diabetes, it’s a wise idea to go easy on foods that contain HFCS. Here’s a partial list of foods to be wary of:

  • Most sweetened sodas and other soft drinks
  • Some fruit juice drinks (i.e., fruit juice “cocktails”)
  • Bottled pasta sauce
  • Ketchup and barbecue sauce
  • Cereals
  • Canned soup
  • Canned fruit in syrup
  • Frozen entrées

As always, read food labels and find out, in addition to carb and fat grams, what kinds of ingredients are in your food. Try to choose foods that are as unrefined as possible, as often as possible. Your body will thank you.

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Comments
  1. Dear Amy. Ifsome of this is true, it is horrible. For those who think G. Bush has had the reverse Midas touch i.e. turning gold into mud. He may have done one good thing during his presidency. His food into fuel program has made corn so expensive that my son said that a major soft drink bottler has considered going back to sucrose. Which splits into glucose and fructose by the time it hits tummy. Possibly only half as toxic? Also you wonder if there is any chemical difference in fructose in corn sirup and in fruits and from sucrose. Remember thalidomide the right handed and the left handed molecules had quite a diferent impact on the body.

    Posted by Calgarydiabetic |
  2. I’ve been avoiding HFCS since I started hearing bad things about it coming from Walter C. Willett and Marion Nestle… not to mention the John Stossel documentary on TV about a year ago… hard to completely eliminate it, but I’ve reduced my consumption by about 98% from what it was six years ago.

    Mind you, this doesn’t excuse the other nasty things in our diet (hydrogenated oils, excessive levels of sodium, and refined flours and sugars, excessive levels of animal-derived fats, etc.)…

    Posted by tmana |
  3. Hi Calgarydiabetic,
    Thanks for your comment. At this point, I don’t think we have enough information to really prove that HFCS is “toxic”. But we do know that it’s a source of empty calories, and it may have some other health consequences. So, it makes sense to limit our intake as much as we can.

    Posted by acampbell |
  4. My husband and I constantly read labels. Anything with HFCS in it, we do not eat. Within about 3 months time we both lost weight and we feel a lot better. In my opinion HFCS is a poison. If only people would take note that the food industry is killing people.

    Posted by sassy-mama |
  5. Sassy-Mama =

    I am the same way. Since avoiding HFCS, I too have lost weight. I now cook 100% fresh, even making my own sauces, since HFCS is in even the simplest of everyday sauces. Even yogurt - I either by plain or make my own. If they (the food manufacturers) don’t add lots of salt, then its the HFCS. Ridiculous.

    Posted by Dirk Baeuerle |
  6. I agree with sassy-mama that HFCS is tantamount to poison. My wife and I read labels and avoid it at all costs. Read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for a comprehensive discussion. You’ll never eat anything with HFCS in it again.

    Posted by rstimmons |
  7. I don’t know about HFCS being toxic or anything, but I’ve been trying to avoid it because of the effects on my blood sugar over the past couple of years… I have to say, my digestive system started working a LOT better in just a few weeks. Of course, who can tell if that was due to the lack of HFCS, or the lack of the other ingredients that usually go along with it. I generally feel much better now than I did then. And I can tell the difference between sugar and HFCS in the sweet foods I do eat.

    Posted by Angela |
  8. HFCS is also implicated as a cause of atherosclerosis, although the research is in its infancy. I blogged about this back in January:

    http://advancedmediterraneandiet.com/blog/?p=5

    Most HFCS consumed today is in soft drinks. Consumption of soft drinks in the U.S. in 1942 was two per week. In 2000, consumption was tow PER DAY.

    -Steve Parker, M.D.

    Posted by Steve Parker, M.D. |
  9. I was at the hospital last week and a nurse said that when a diabetic eats rice she has seen the blood sugar go way up. Is this true?
    How much rice is okay for a day?
    Thanks
    Paul

    Posted by Paul Maine |
  10. LEARNING TO READ LABELS- HFCS- WAS MAKING ME BECOME OBESE EATING THINGS THAT HAVE HFCS IN THEM. SEVERAL MONTHS AGO I STARTED LOSING MY BREATH. STOPPED EATING EVERYTHING THAT HAS HFCS IN IT/ EATING AN APPLE BEFORE EVERY MEAL - USING A STATIONERY BIKE - I’VE LOST 35 POUNDS AND STARTING TO FEEL GOOD AGAIN. I’VE MADE A LIST OF FOODS. I CAN’T EAT. FOR ALL FIVE SMALL MEALS . SALADS ARE GREAT WITH FETA CHEESE OR CHEDDAR/ BALSAMIC VINEGAR/ OLIVE OIL. CHICKEN - ORGANIC- BLACK ANGUS BEEF- ORGANIC- MILK- ORGANIC APPLE SAUCE. SOMEONE SHOULD RUN A STUDY. I THINK HFCS IS A KILLER. AND SHOULD BE REMOVED FROM ALL CONSUMABLE PRODUCTS.

    Posted by SAVY CONSUMER |
  11. What is good to eat? Every other article
    lists something bad in another food. Fish-bad. Red meat-bad. Vegetables-bad(poisonous sprays residue). Flour (bleached and bromated)bad. Eggs-bad(cholesterol). Water-bad(contaminated or overchlorinated). Juice-bad. Is there anything left to eat? I know you will answer that those that do not eat live longer!

    Posted by rentie13l |
  12. Hi Paul,

    What the nurse probably should have mentioned is that if you eat TOO much rice, meaning, more than what your carb allowance is for a given meal, your blood sugar can go way up. Rice is a carbohydrate, just like bread, pasta, cereal and fruit. All carbs turn into glucose. Also, white rice has a fairly high glycemic index, meaning that it can spike your blood sugar pretty quickly after eating. A serving of rice (15 grams of carb) is 1/3 cup. If you have 30 grams of carb for a meal, you could eat 2/3 cup. So, you need to know how much carb is best for you for each of your meals and snacks.

    Posted by acampbell |
  13. rentie131,

    I wouldn’t ever tell anyone not to eat. We need to eat to survive. It’s true that some of our food isn’t as healthy as it should be, but we’re fortunate to have a pretty safe and healthy food supply in the United States. Not all fish, red meat, vegetables or water are “bad.” Thanks to the media, we tend to hear only about those instances when e. coli contaminates spinach or water is found to contain traces of medicine. These instances, thankfully, are few and far between.

    Posted by acampbell |
  14. I have come to the conclusion that there are only three ingredients in processed foods; salt, fat and sugar. Food manufacturers are going to use the cheapest version of each so we have foods with bad fats and HCFS. I think the key to good health is eating foods obtained as close to the source as possible. Fresh, non-processed and varied food types, along with a regimen of daily exercise has allowed me to lose 42 pounds, stop taking my diabetic meds and enjoy life again.

    Posted by tembleton |
  15. Dear Americans time for another revolution. You have to do it because Canadians are like sheep when it comes to higher autority. Not only should the high fructose be banned but the ordinary salt i.e. sodium chloride in our prepared foods should not be allowed beyond the strct minimum necessary to preserve the food. Or even better when preservatives are needed then an appropriate mixture of potassium, magnesium and sodium chlorides should be instead of strait sodium which makes a mess of the blood pressure in some people.

    Posted by CalgaryDiabetic |
  16. Please be aware of how many DIET, DIETETIC and/or so-called HEALTHY snacks, Meal Replacement Bars, Granola bars, etc., etc. have HFCS in them —

    IT’S AMAZING! Not to mention SCAREY.

    Posted by KTeeIllinois |
  17. last year I felt terrible and was very overweight. so I cut HFCS from my diet and lost 35lb and I feel great and run 5 miles a day. oh wait I made a mistake. What I meant to say was I didnt change my diet at all and I just excersized every day, now I have lost 35 lb and feel fantastic…

    Wow. HFCS sounds scary, but wait a second. are you saying there is no real evidence that HFCS is toxic or even bad for you? yah that sounds about right.

    you are almost all idiots. HFCS is fructose and Glucose (read Sugars). Fructose is found in almost all the fruit you eat and glucose. well glucose is just another simple sugar like fructose. if you didnt get it in HFCS you would get it when your body broke down sugar.

    if you want to solve most peoples obesity problem, tell everyone to go for a run every day. remember you evolved from animals who had to be super active to survive. what we do today is far from active.

    Posted by Josh |
  18. High fructose corn syrup is bad, but what is in it that causes many affects?

    Posted by Lina |
  19. Hi Lina,

    You ask a good question. High-fructose corn syrup is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The fructose is metabolized differently than glucose, and it’s thought that the way in which fructose is handled in the body is, in part, responsible for some of its possible harmful effects.

    Posted by acampbell |
  20. Amy: Thank you for the additional info and seems to track something in my body and handling of the trick sugars. The standard sugars and simple carbs and starches make glucose and all my meters track.

    On the trick sugars, my liver decides to turf that stuff around the body loop for extra passes thru liver to get metabolized.

    Hod do I know: the finger prick meters that do mot filter and measure on glucose D only always show numbers 20 to 100 points off. The free style lite and I believe the one touch usually track faithfully. This meter off readings continues for about 4 hours until trick sugars wiped out of body. Most annoying. Malto dextrin - corn sugar reliably shows this.

    Posted by jim snell |

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