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HFCS not the same as table sugar
The Corn Refiners Association (and others) would have you believe that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is essentially the same as table sugar (sucrose) and that your body processes them the same way. The research has been mixed on the subject, with some studies indicating that HFCS contributes to obesity and others not.

A Serious Look at Fructose
Not long ago I answered an "Ask Dr. Gourmet" question about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). She noted that her local Applebee's had HFCS in almost everything and wondered what research I had done on its risks. At the time I could only say that the research on High Fructose Corn Syrup was inconclusive but that it certainly contributed a lot of calories that folks just don't need.

What Not To Eat: High Fructose Corn Syrup Edition
I suppose that I can't put this off any longer. The discussion about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can really get people riled up. At virtually every single talk that I give, someone in the audience asks about it. Something seemingly simple like, "What about high fructose corn syrup?"


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HFCS increases risk of heart disease

a number of cans of carbonated soda, seen from above, with one open

When I give lectures, one of the most frequently asked questions is about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Some people say it's "as bad for you as arsenic," while others pooh-pooh all the concern, saying it's no different from sucrose.

For a long time the peer-reviewed research (as opposed to that paid for by beverage manufacturers and the like) was mixed as to whether HFCS specifically endangered one's health as opposed to simply too much sugar intake in general. Current estimates say that the average American adult between the ages of 20 and 60 consumes about 13-14% of their total daily calories in the form of added sugars (this is distinct from the sugars naturally occurring in foods like fruits). Worse yet, those under 20 appear to consume as much as 16% of their total calories in the form of added sugar.

That amount of excess sugar consumption has been linked in some studies to an 18% increase in risk of death from heart disease, but we have yet to see a clear link between High Fructose Corn Syrup consumption and such concrete risk factors for heart disease as cholesterol scores.

A new study sheds light on that link (Am J Clin Nutr 2015;101:1144-54). 85 healthy men and women completed a study designed and carried out by researchers from the University of California at Davis. The participants were split into four groups whose participants were matched as well as possible with respect to sex, Body Mass Index, and cholesterol and insulin scores - meaning that a person of the same gender with similar BMI and blood test results were in each group. The participants of each group were assigned to consume a daily drink made with a commercially-available High Fructose Corn Syrup which provided 4 increasing levels of their total daily calories: 0% of calories (drink made with a calorie-free sweetener), 10% of calories, 17% of calories, and 25% of calories. (Let us all take a moment to appreciate these study participants, as that's a whole lot of sugar.)

The participants moved into the lab for the first 3 1/2 and last 3 1/2 days of the study. While there, the participants consumed a standardized diet (along with their assigned beverage), and provided blood and urine samples for testing. For the 12 days in between the first and last stays in the lab, the participants returned to their homes and ate their usual diets, supplemented with their assigned beverage.

The researcher's results are concerning. Those who consumed the drinks containing HFCS saw their triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and uric acid levels increase: the higher the concentration of HFCS in their assigned beverage, the worse their scores became. This connection held true even when the researchers took into account the amount of weight the participants gained through consuming more calories.

The authors note that they did not compare HFCS-containing beverages with those sweetened with sucrose alone, so it would be inaccurate to say that sucrose is "better for you" than HFCS, which by definition is a combination of fructose and glucose (in this specific case, 55% fructose, 45% glucose).

What this means for you

Larger studies are clearly needed, but this certainly cements my position that foods that contain High Fructose Corn Syrup have no place in a healthy diet. At the very least, it's still an indication that the food in question is highly processed, and you would do far better to avoid such overly-processed foods. Beverages that contain HFCS shouldn't be drunk by anyone; ditch the sodas and drink water, tea, or coffee instead.

First posted: June 17, 2015