Cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are indeed both harmful when consumed in pharmacologic doses of 140 pounds per person per year. When one 20 ounce HFCS sweetened soda, sports drink or tea has 17 teaspoons of sugar (and the average teenager often consumes two drinks a day) we are conducting a largely uncontrolled experiment on the human species. Our hunter gather ancestors consumed the equivalent of 20 teaspoons per year, not per day. In this sense, I would agree with the corn industry that sugar is sugar. Quantity matters. But there are some important differences.
2. HFCS and cane sugar are NOT biochemically identical or processed the same way by the body.
High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and far from “natural” or a naturally occurring substance. It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Carghill would not allow the investigative journalist, Michael Pollan to observe it for his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The sugars are extracted through a chemical enzymatic process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound called HFCS.
Some basic biochemistry will help you understand this. Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two-sugar molecules bound tightly together – glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body.
HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose. And HCFS is cheaper than sugar because of the government farm bill corn subsidies. Products with HFCS are sweeter and cheaper than products made with cane sugar. This allowed for the average soda size to balloon from 8 ounces to 20 ounces with little financial costs to manufacturers but great human costs of increased obesity, diabetes and chronic disease.
Now back to biochemistry. Since there is there is no chemical bond between them, no digestion is required so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) this is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin – our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more.
But there was one more thing I learned during lunch with Dr. Bruce Ames. Research done by his group at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute found that free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed by the gut and soaks up two phosphorous molecules from ATP (our body’s energy source). This depletes the energy fuel source or ATP in our gut required to maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining. Little “tight junctions” cement each intestinal cell together preventing food and bacteria from “leaking” across the intestinal membrane and triggering an immune reaction and body wide inflammation.
High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging. Naturally occurring fructose in fruit is part of a complex of nutrients and fiber that doesn’t exhibit the same biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in “corn sugar”.
The takeaway: Cane sugar and the industrially produced, euphemistically named “corn sugar” are not biochemically or physiologically the same.
3. HFCS contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA
An FDA researcher asked corn producers to ship a barrel of high fructose corn syrup in order to test for contaminants. Her repeated requests were refused until she claimed she represented a newly created soft drink company. She was then promptly shipped a big vat of HFCS that was used as part of the study that showed that HFCS often contains toxic levels of mercury because of chlor-alkali products used in its manufacturing.(i) Poisoned sugar is certainly not “natural”.
When HFCS is run through a chemical analyzer or a chromatograph, strange chemical peaks show up that are not glucose or fructose. What are they? Who knows? This certainly calls into question the purity of this processed form of super sugar. The exact nature, effects and toxicity of these funny compounds have not been fully explained, but shouldn’t we be protected from the presence of untested chemical compounds in our food supply, especially when the contaminated food product comprises up to 15-20 percent of the average American’s daily calorie intake?
4. Independent medical and nutrition experts DO NOT support the use of HCFS in our diet, despite the assertions of the corn industry.
The corn industry’s happy looking websites www.cornsugar.com and www.sweetsurprise.com bolster their position that cane sugar and corn sugar are the same by quoting experts, or should we say mis-quoting …
Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has published widely on the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks and their contribution to the obesity epidemic. In a review of HFCS in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,(ii) he explains the mechanism by which the free fructose may contribute to obesity. He states that:
“The digestion, absorption, and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose. Hepatic metabolism of fructose favors de novo lipogenesis [production of fat in the liver]. In addition, unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. Because insulin and leptin act as key afferent signals in the regulation of food intake and body weight [to control appetite], this suggests that dietary fructose may contribute to increased energy intake and weight gain. Furthermore, calorically sweetened beverages may enhance caloric overconsumption.”
He states that HFCS is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and that it doesn’t stimulate insulin or leptin production. This prevents you from triggering the body’s signals for being full and may lead to overconsumption of total calories.
He concludes by saying that:
“… the increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.”
The corn industry takes his comments out of context to support their position. “All sugar you eat is the same.”
True pharmacologic doses of any kind of sugar are harmful, but the biochemistry of different kinds of sugar and their respective effects on absorption, appetite and metabolism are different, and Dr. Popkin knows that.
David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and a personal friend has published extensively on the dangers and the obesogenic properties of sugar-sweetened beverages. He was quoted as saying that “high fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food industry.” When I asked him why he supported the corn industry, he told me he didn’t and that his comments were taken totally out of context.
Misrepresenting science is one thing, misrepresenting scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against obesity and high fructose sugar sweetened beverages is quite another.
5. HCFS is almost always a marker of poor-quality, nutrient-poor disease creating industrial food products or “food-like substances”.
The last reason to avoid products that contain HFCS is that they are a marker for poor-quality, nutritionally depleted, processed industrial food full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. If you find “high fructose corn syrup” on the label you can be sure it is not a whole, real, fresh food full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Stay away if you want to stay healthy. We still must reduce our overall consumption of sugar, but with this one simple dietary change you can radically reduce your health risks and improve your health.
While debate may rage about the biochemistry and physiology of cane sugar vs. corn sugar, this is in fact beside the point (despite the finer points of my scientific analysis above). The conversation has been diverted to a simple assertion that cane sugar and corn sugar are not different.
The real issues are only two.
We are consuming HFCS and sugar in pharmacologic quantities never before experienced in human history — 140 pounds a year vs. 20 teaspoons a year 10,000 years ago.
High fructose corn syrup is always found in very poor quality foods that are nutritionally vacuous and filled with all sorts of other disease promoting compounds, fats, salt, chemicals and even mercury.