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A Response To A Concern About High-Fructose Corn Syrup.

05nov28. Dr. Berk has digested this essay on High Fructose Corn Syrup and responds below.

In the 1970's the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture made a bold -- though shortsighted -- stroke when he enabled the development of a compound called High Fructose Corn Syrup. The American farmer had lost a great deal of profit due to overseas imports, and the U.S. government was therefore charged with coming up with a more profitable way for farmers to use their corn surplus. At the same time, groundswell pressure from consumers was rampant to keep grocery prices affordable.

With that great American crop, corn, threatened, so was the livelihood of our all-American corn farmers. Enter High Fructose Corn Syrup -- the new sweetener that would drive up demand for corn and provide a super cheap new form of sweetener for packaged foods, breads, cereals, sodas, spaghetti sauce, ketchup - you name it, HFCS would be in it. The future looked sweet indeed.

I will leave the politics of HFCS, especially vs. sugar, as an exercise to the reader. It's definitely an interesting story, especially if you like soda pop! I'll be focusing on the scientific merit (or lack thereof) of the rest of the document.

More stable than sugar against the disintegrating elements (such as moisture), foods with High Fructose Corn Syrup can literally travel thousands of miles and sit on the shelf of your local convenience store forever and (almost) never go bad. Cheaper ingredients meant cheaper groceries for the good American consumer. A win- win situation, it seemed.

Because of the unusually long shelf life of HFCS, store-bought cakes, cookies, brownies, mixes, breads, sodas, juices, tomato sauce and all of the rest could be sold with practically no expiration date.

Not True. The sweetener is not the only thing that determines shelf life. For example, flour contains insect eggs, which will eventually hatch. There's no getting around it - it's a fact of life. Shelf life may be enhanced with HFCS, but it doesn't render foodstuffs "indestructible".

HFCS, despite misleading labels that read "all natural," is an ENTIRELY man-made substance. It's almost indestructible.

Now, we're getting into splitting hairs about "all natural". Flour, sugar, heck, even salt, is processed before being used. In fact, baking itself is not natural - you're doing some SERIOUS chemistry on those poor natural foodstuffs. Pie: an ENTIRELY man-made substance.

Like Styrofoam, eternal and immortal.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And irresponsible reporting. HFCS is much closer to "all natural" sugar than Styrofoam. Not even close. Ask any chemist.

The pornographic underbelly of all this (and there always is one, it seems, where money and government and conflicting desires come into play) is that in laboratory tests High Fructose Corn Syrup causes male rats to never fully develop their testicles. And High Fructose Corn Syrup also causes the hearts of female rats to expand until they burst. Exit pornography, enter horror flick.

I assume you're referring to the study whereby a high fructose diet causes more problems than a "mixed" diet of other natural sweeteners in animals with a copper deficiency (not even "normal" animals). See the link at the bottom for a much more balanced treatment. But while we're on the subject of horrible things happening to animals, when one reads statements like this, one should remember that EVERYTHING has a lethal dose. Imagine the following true sentence: "There is a substance that is completely pervasive in the environment which, in laboratory tests, causes every cell exposed to it to swell up and burst open!" The substance: water. And yes, people have died of drinking too much water too quickly.

But is this a rat tragic story or a human tragedy? Well, hold into your seats because the seemingly innocuous little sweet nothings that Secretary Butz so gracefully introduced to our bellies in the seventies are now linked to obesity, diabetes, and yes, even cirrhosis of the liver.

Same with sugar, and the jury is definitely still out as to whether fructose is any different than sugar in this respect.

And as if the above were not enough, there is also some preliminary evidence that HFCS is carcinogenic.

HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Thus, if HFCS is carcinogenic, then so is sugar. Sugar (sucrose) is made up of a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose chemically bonded together. This bond is quite weak, and is cleaved in your saliva and in your stomach, so by the time it gets absorbed into your system, it is already broken down into the glucose and fructose molecules. Thus, every dose of ordinary sugar is equal to a half dose of glucose and a half dose of fructose. HFCS gives you almost the same dose of each of these simple sugars. Is the 10% excess of fructose enough to tip the balance. Hard to say. Certainly not nearly as clear cut as you imply in this article. The bottom line - eat sweet things in moderation and you will be less at risk for disease that comes from sweet things. As Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the consumer advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, "It simply comes down to this. We're eating too much refined sugars, be it sucrose or high fructose corn syrup or any other refined sugar."

In his groundbreaking book FatLand, Greg Critser breaks down exactly how HFCS is metabolized by the human body. In short, because our bodies have absolutely no way of understanding this highly engineered substance ... they convert it into storage material and chuck it away ... hence we are fattened up.

Again, wrong. Our bodies absolutely "understand" fructose and all of the other natural simple carbohydrate sugars. Ask any biologist. The metabolic pathways may be different, and this MAY be really important. You're using loaded language to attempt to make a currently ambiguous problem into something more "black & white." Peter Havel, who conducted much of the research showing metabolic differences between glucose and fructose, is quick to point out: "Whether there is an important difference in the effects of consuming beverages sweetened with a mixture of 55 percent as opposed to 50 percent fructose would be hard to measure."

The explanation goes like this: glucose molecules, which are the building blocks of sucrose, can be metabolized (used, eaten) by any and every cell in the human body.

As I mentioned above, the building blocks of sucrose are glucose and fructose. This isn't a simple "natural sugar ok, HFCS not ok" situation. Perhaps you can argue that we don't know what the effects of a fructose-rich diet are, but you CANNOT say that sucrose can be easily metabolized, while fructose cannot. This simply is not the case.

This is not so with Fructose. It has to be metabolized through the liver. Hence, your liver ends up releasing triglycerides into your bloodstream and generally has trouble dealing with this weird substance. Fructose, which used to be advised for diabetics because it did not stimulate insulin production, really does appear to do a lot of fancy footwork with enzymes and other hormones, too. It does not allow the release of the hormone that tells the brain you are full. Hence, you overeat.

Once again, you can site studies about fructose vs. sucrose, but calling fructose a "weird substance" is just plain irresponsible. Fructose, being half of sugar, is simply not "fancy". In fact, it is chemically more simple than sucrose - but that has nothing to do with anything. You should present the facts and let people make their own choices, but don't couch them in these horror-show theatrics.

Now, what about the HFCS advocates who maintain that High Fructose Corn Syrup really is an "all-natural ingredient" because, they say, it is made from corn and fructose is the sugar naturally occurring in fruit? Well, wine and isopropyl alcohol both contain alcohol. However, the rubbing stuff for cotton balls should never go in your wineglass. Get it?

This is one of the most idiotic statements I've ever heard. The alcohol in wine is ethanol, a different molecule than isopropyl alcohol. Both molecules are toxic, by the way. Just ask anyone who knows something about alcohol poisoning. To make the analogy that sugar is like ethanol, while HFCS is like isopropanol is wrong on so many levels, it takes away from any reasonable argument to reduce HFCS consumption. Especially when sugar (sucrose), as I keep saying, is metabolized into 50% fructose. One more time, you can't ingest sugar without ingesting fructose, and HFCS is quite similar to sucrose in its composition!

Let's look a little more closely at how this stuff is made. Saying that HFCS is an all- natural substance is like saying two celebrities naturally bumped into each other and fell in love - when more often their PR agents set them up. HFCS is set up as follows: Corn starch is boiled, distilled, and generally messed with until you get a corn syrup with a big jacked-up amount of fructose ... HFCS could have as little as 45% fructose or as much as 85% ... the "hard stuff"

"Generally messed with"? Do you know how sugar is made? They take "all natural" cane - which is harvested by burning cane fields (thus contributing to global warming) - and then boil and disitill it! I thought for sure you'd mention how evil bioengineered proteins are then used on the corn to break up the starch into fructose, glucose, and other more complex carbohydrates, but you must have missed the reading on that one. To all this, I say - BIG DEAL! You mentioned earlier that drinking wine seems ok, as long as you don't drink ispropanol. Let's think about how beer and wine (and even bread) are made: you take starchy water and introduce enzymes that break down the starch into sugar, carbon dioxide and alcohol. A regular Frankenstein's monster experiment, and yet it's been done for thousands of years! Again, I'm not saying that we shouldn't be asking about where our food comes from, but why pick on one thing (HFCS), just for dramatic effect? I would direct the readers to this article. It does a much better job of laying out the issues without such uninformed hysteria.