The Trouble with Sweet: Part 2 Fructose and HFCSs

November 07, 2007

The Trouble with Sweet:  Part 2  Fructose and HFCSs 

 Competency: # Sugar                       Reference: Dr. Chi-Tang Ho’s Presentation to the American Chemical Society, reported August 28th. 

 Let’s tackle fructose.  What is it?  It is a single sugar molecule, a cousin of glucose (your body’s gasoline).  It is the dominant natural sugar in fruits, hence the name.  And it’s the other half of table “sugar” which is glucose and fructose combined, otherwise known as sucrose.  But it is also the dominant sugar in High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCSs.   

10% of America’s calories come in the form of HFCS.  Manufacturers like HCFS.  It’s cheaper to make than table sugar which comes from sugar cane or sugar beets.  In liquid form, it’s easier to transport and to mix with foods.  And it lasts longer without spoiling on the grocery store shelf.  It saves an estimated penny a can in making sodas.   It’s sweeter than table sugar.  That’s why our efficient, industrialized food-making industry has used it.  It just makes sense.  It’s sweeter, cheaper and more abundant.  What’s not to like?  

But HFCS is not pure fructose.  It’s actually only about 55% fructose in most of its preparations (and that's allowed to vary by +/- 20%.  So, it could be 75%).  That tiny extra increment of 5% is what this column is about. Four things not to like!   One:  It’s too cheap!  Our farm subsidies and sugar tariffs combine to lower the price of domestically produced HFCS.  Hence, HFCS (fructose) is in many of our foods and our genetically programmed “sweet tooth” can’t resist it.  Add it to food, and we obediently eat more of it, tons of it.  Most of it is tucked away in cans and bottles of soda.  The data for HFCS are 26 kgs. per person per year in America. 

 Two:  It makes us fat.  “Sugar” (table sugar and HFCS) is the ONLY food directly linked scientifically to America’s obesity epidemic.  The introduction of cheap sugar to our food is directly and immediately associated with the pounds we’ve put on over the last 30 years.  The inverse side of this bad news is that avoiding sugar may be one of the simplest and most effective methods to start shedding that tonnage. 

 Three:  Even more insidious, your liver can’t take it anymore.  There’s something odd about fructose and your liver.  From fruit, fructose is a portion of healthy food, with fiber to slow down its absorption.  But make it liquid and concentrate it in HCFS, and the whole story changes.  Your liver accumulates fatty molecules.  In fact, the cells of your liver look stuffed with fat.  Rats, on a pure fructose and vitamin diet rapidly die, whereas on a glucose and vitamin diet do just fine.  

We can’t ethically do the study in humans, but a diet of HCFS in the movie “Super-size Me” almost killed Morgan Spurlock from liver failure in just a month.  The net effect is that America has a strong pattern of increasing “non-alcoholic liver disease” which is explained in animal models by the extra fructose in HCFS.  Every month there are many articles explaining the hunt for the mechanisms in humans.  

The national "Liver Association" has put out warnings about fructose and "non-alcoholic liver disease".  It's dangerous.   Lesson: too much fructose kills your liver by stuffing it with fat. Four:  

Poisons?  That’s what Dr. Ho is worried about.  "Activated carbonyl compounds" are in HFCS.  They probably are introduced by making industrial quantities of HFCS at high temperatures and pressures.  Activated carbonyls are very chemically reactive compounds that are linked to the complications of diabetes, and may be part of causing the disease by the damage they do to your body.  They chemically attach to all sorts of delicate molecules in your body and make them function improperly.   Dr. Ho found 5 times the concentration of reactive carbonyl compounds in multiple foods prepared with HFCS than are found in diabetics.  Diabetics have higher levels to start with, and one current hypothesis of how diabetes gets started is the damage from reactive carbonyls.  

Lesson:  HCFS, sweetened sodas, in particular, have a foreign chemical in them that may damage your inner chemistry, putting you on the road to diabetes. For now, it’s an association. Remember, this is how science works.  We find “associations” first by teasing out clusters of symptoms and disease.  Then, in step two, we figure out how that works down at the chemical level.  Finally, we do a randomized controlled trial.  That’s considered proof.  Absolute proof takes time.  A prudent health-conscious consumer might make reasonable conclusions to simply avoid the stuff. 

 WWW:  What will work for me.  I haven’t got that much time.  There are no reactive carbonyls in table sugar, just empty calories.  I’m trying to get my waistline a little emptier, and the last thing I need is empty calories.  I’ll get my fructose from fruit, the whole fruit.  This idea of “Whole Foods” gathers appeal, doesn’t it?  So, this week, as I wrote this article I found myself squinting in the bright light at the fine print on food labels for every food I ate that came in a package to see if it had HFCS in it.   I avoided one “nutrition bar” because of it.  I better get better at reading labels if my body is going to be a perfect temple.  (Imagine that visual!)  Well, how about at least a little shack in which I can sleep comfortably and safely.  And lose the HFCSs.  Fructose from fruit.  Whole fruit.

The column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)