High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is frequently demonized as one of the major contributors to the obesity epidemic and is responsible for the increasing prevalence of type 2 (a.k.a. adult onset) diabetes. It has also been said that the consumption of products that contain added sweeteners such as HFCS desensitize the food reward center in our brain, encourage greater consumption, and sabotage our ability to learn and retain information. But are added sweeteners really the cause of our collective weight gain and are HFCS’s specifically to blame for the inability to observe dietary moderation? A recent study suggests otherwise and leaves us looking for the next dietary substance to isolate and ostracize.
Setting the Stage
Over the past the four decades, our consumption of added sweeteners has steadily increased and it has been posited that this increase, primarily the result of our insatiable thirst for sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB’s), is responsible for the obesity epidemic. Further, the steady replacement of sucrose with HFCS has exacerbated the problem by slipping the wool over a number of critical biological processes that help regulate our consumption. However, this study recently published in the Nutrition Journal refutes such claims and asserts that our weight gain and the obesity epidemic are the result of overindulgence in all foods, not just SSB’s or foods containing HFCS. Thought provoking and well controlled, this study does a fairly thorough job of flipping the world on its head and encourages a reassessment of where we assert blame for our declining health. Here is one statement that I believe does a pretty good job of reinforcing their assertion.
“Sugars and caloric sweeteners available for consumption increased by an average of 58 calories per day whereas total calories available for individuals in the United States increased 515 kilocalories per day from just over 2,100 calories to just under 2,700 calories.”
Study administrators were bold enough to make such claims by indirectly associating the cause of our weight gain with the inability of added sweeteners to hinder weight loss. By prescribing calorically restrictive diets where sucrose and HFCS were consumed in different proportions and analyzed against a control group where no dietary modifications were made, this study found that regardless of diet or the variety of sugar consumed, all participants were able to lose similar amounts of weight and improve their health as measured by a reduced risk for a number of weight related ailments. By noticing significant weight loss regardless of sugar consumption, it can be surmised that the opposite outcome could be applied to weight gain. Essentially, we gain weight because we overeat, not because of the presence or variety of added sugar in our foods.
Not entirely groundbreaking in and of itself, the value of this new information is in its ability to corroborate previous statements that were largely unfounded. I like this one the best:
“Thus, caloric soft drinks’ contribution to obesity is not likely to have been due to HFCS, but to other factors that increased consumption, including the following: 1) massive soft-drink advertising campaigns, 2) serving sizes that have increased over the years…, 3) soft drinks having become a child’s standard drink at increasingly patronized fast-food restaurants, 4) huge servings offered at cinemas and convenience stores, and 5) ubiquitous soft-drink vending machines.”
Given the complexity of nutrition, energy regulation, and the uniqueness of the human body, it is unlikely that one single component of diet is to blame for the obesity epidemic and we must reframe our understanding of nutrition towards holism and the impact of every single lifestyle component on our health and wellbeing.