High Fructose Corn Syrup, Soda and Disease
We all know that soft drinks, and all sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) for that matter, are at the root of the obesity epidemic and their consumption should be severely reduced if not completely eliminated. However, many continue to imbibe these toxic substances out indifference or ignorance towards the biological damage that they can cause. Well, inspired by a recent study (http://www.diabetologia-journal.org/) that found that the daily consumption of drinks containing caloric sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, sucrose or fruit juice concentrate is associated with a 22% increase in type II diabetes risk, I thought this would be the perfect time to revisit how SSBs and, more specifically, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) function in the body and inspire a few more people to ditch these toxic beverages for good.
Introduced in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was developed as an inexpensive alternative to the sugar (sucrose) being utilized by food manufacturers in the burgeoning market for convenient, processed goods. The transition away from sucrose was so effective in reducing operational costs while maintaining product quality that HFCS now represents greater than 40% of the caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages in the United States and, to the main point of this post, is the primary caloric sweetener used in ‘full flavored’ soft drinks. Unfortunately, the widespread use of HFCS in commercially produced foods and beverages has not been as beneficial for consumers, because such foods have helped ignite the proliferation of extremely destructive conditions like obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
And, although I know we all recognize that there are many factors that contribute to the development of such severe conditions, it is hard to ignore the influence that our national dependence upon sugars is having upon our health and we must do our best to try and understand the consequences of such a seemingly insignificant action as enjoying our favorite soft drink.
In order to better understand HFCS are why they are considered one of the primary influences in the obesity epidemic, we need to take a look at what distinguishes it from the more ‘traditional’ sweeteners used in the food production process prior to the obesity epidemic. And, reviewing a few simple terms may be a good place to start. Sucrose, the primary sweetener used in processed foods prior to the introduction of HFCS, is classified as a disaccharide (an organic compound containing two sugar molecules) composed of equal parts glucose and fructose (50:50 fructose to glucose), both of which are monosaccharaides (single, or simple, sugar molecules). The now widely popular high fructose corn syrup is also a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose, but is engineered to contain a higher proportion of fructose (typically 55:45), which has a sweeter taste. Glucose, the product of photosynthesis in plants that fuels cellular respiration, is, as mentioned, a monosaccharide that is absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion and is often considered to be the body’s preferred source of cellular energy. Fructose, or fruit sugar, is similar to glucose in that it is also a single sugar and found in many plants and absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion, but it maintains a different chemical structure that causes it to function differently in the body.
Although it may be beyond the scope of this piece, the key structural difference between glucose and fructose are the bonds between their respective carbon atoms. The carbon in glucose is bound to hydrogen and oxygen atoms, while the carbon in fructose is only bound to an oxygen atom. This minor difference has a fairly significant impact as we will see shortly.
So, at this point we know that both table sugar (sucrose) and HFCS are made from glucose and fructose, but in different proportions relative to one another and that HFCS contains more fructose, which imparts a sweeter and supposedly more pleasant taste.
Fructose in the Body
As mentioned, minor structural differences between glucose and fructose cause them to function differently in the body and, therefore, cause sucrose and HFCS to have a different impact upon health. A few of the more important differences include:
- Once absorbed, glucose stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas while fructose does not. This means that glucose has the ability to directly modulate food intake by stimulating the release of insulin.
- Glucose sparks satiety signals that fructose cannot ignite in order to tell the brain that the body’s energy need has been met. This means that we unwittingly consume more energy, calories, when we consume foods that contain increasingly greater proportions of fructose.
- Fructose contributes the production of long-chain fatty acids and, therefore, facilitates the biochemical formation of triglycerides more efficiently than glucose. This effect, a.k.a. de novo lipogenesis, is exacerbated by the fact that the fructose molecules found in HFCS are ‘unbound’ by complex of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, pectin and fiber that are delivered with the fructose found in fruits.
Although glucose and fructose are both simple sugars, the minor differences in their chemical structure are the reason why they function so much differently in the body and, therefore, have a dramatically different impact upon the body. And, by virtue of its higher fructose content, HFCS is more detrimental to our health than good ol’ fashioned table sugar.
Soda: HFCS Hangout
If it wasn’t bad enough that high fructose corn syrup accounts for over 40% of the caloric sweeteners added to commercially produced foods and beverages, it is the, “sole caloric sweetener in soft drinks in the United States.” Although the metabolic harm caused by HFCS should be motivation enough, it has also been found that our dependence upon SSBs is detrimental to our health in a variety of other ways as well. For example, it has been found that when humans consume caloric beverages, we do not compensate for the increased calories by ingesting less energy in the form of solid food. Also, the increased consumption of HFCS sweetened beverages has been associated with a decrease in the consumption of ‘healthy’ beverages like milk and water, which may further jeopardize our health.
Framing this information into context of our consumption may help us see the magnitude of our ‘addiction’ to soft drinks. According to the fine folks at the Yale Rudder Center for Food Policy and Obesity:
- For all age groups (2 years to over 60) between 1977 and 2001, SSB consumption increased by 135%. Approximately 278 additional calories to the average diet.
- Every additional serving of sugar-sweetened beverages consumed by children increases the risk of obesity by 60%.
- SSB’s provide the largest source of daily calories for 2 to 18 year olds. Soda being the third largest contributor by itself.
Tying these facts with what we learned earlier about fructose clearly illustrates that drinking SSBs and soda is one of the most dangerous food behaviors that many of us unknowingly participate in on a daily basis. I believe the solution to our dependence upon soda is overwhelmingly obvious and is almost identical to all those that deal in food and nutrition. Education is the only way we can create the lasting change necessary to improve the health and wellness of our future generations. Regulation and oversight will be ineffective as long as the public is unaware of why such measures are being proposed. We are the only ones responsible for our health and we must accept the fact that the choices we make have very real consequences.