Sugar is sugar. Heard that phrase before? What it means is that our bodies cannot recognize one sugar from the next. It means that when it comes to digesting, absorbing, and using sugar our bodies cannot differentiate between table sugar versus honey, or between fruit sugar (fructose) versus high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In this post I will attempt to explain why this ideology is dangerous, incorrect, and an overgeneralization at best and why HFCS could be causing significant harm to our health.
The chemical differences between fructose and HFCS:
Fructose is the sugar found naturally in fruit. It is a monosaccharide, the simplest form of carbohydrate (along with glucose and galactose), which means it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. It is also the sweetest of the monosaccharides. HFCS, on the other hand, is a chemically-produced sweetener made of two monosaccharides: fructose and glucose. It is inexpensive, shelf-stable, super sweet, and easy to produce in mass quantities. It is added to foods to promote the fluffiness in donuts, the sweetness in fruit juices, and is what helps keep your Double-Stuffed Oreos from going stale.
Why fructose, eaten as part of a whole-foods diet, is totally fine:
Right now, a big trend in dieting is the “no fruit” or “limited fruit” rule. The idea behind this refusal to eat fruit is that it has a lot of sugar in the form of fructose and that this type of sugar is what is contributing to metabolic syndrome, the obesity epidemic, sugar-addiction, and other nutritionally-related evils. Here is why this thought process is wrong:
- First, unlike glucose (the other simple sugar), fructose does not cause a substantial spike in blood sugar. Meaning that individuals with diabetes do not need to worry much about a huge spike in insulin levels when eating fruits.
- Second, 1 apple has 12 grams of fructose. Many studies have proved that the average person can have up to 50 grams of fructose a day without experiencing any negative side-effects like weight gain, digestive issues, a spike in blood sugar levels, etc. It is highly unlikely anyone will consume the equivalent of 4 apples in one day.
- Finally, when your body takes in fructose as a part of fruit, it also takes in many other extremely-beneficial, can’t-live-without components including fiber, vitamins, minerals, water, phytochemicals, and other bioactive food substances which help fight and prevent metabolic disease states from occurring.
Basically, there is no doubt that you can eat loads of fruits and not reap any negative side-effects. Except, ahem, maybe bathroom issues from the additional fiber.
(A science-y side note on the fate of fructose when being consumed as a part of fruit: fructose has three possible fates when entering the body. One, it can be absorbed directly into the blood stream and used for immediate energy. Two, it can be converted to glycogen and stored for up to 24 hours in the liver as a back-up source of energy. Three, if energy-intake is in excess (if you are eating too much food), it can be stored in the liver or fat cells as triglycerides.)
Why HFCS is not totally fine:
The differences between fructose, found in fruit, and fructose, found in HFCS can be confusing. They have the same names so wouldn’t they translate similarly in our bodies? Not necessarily and here are some reasons why:
- The primary fate of fructose being consumed via HFCS is liver triglycerides. Fructose as a part of HFCS is converted and then stored as fat in your liver. This can lead to a serious disorder caused “fatty liver”, which 70 million people currently struggle with and can ultimately lead to liver failure if untreated. (Yep, it is the same fatty liver alcoholics can be diagnosed with, but from a different cause.)
- The amount of HFCS we are consuming on a daily basis is kind of insane. As we talked about above, there are about 12 grams of fructose per apple. If we are allowed to eat up to 50 grams of fructose per day, that translates to about 4 apples, which is a lot of apples on any given day. And, again, this form of fructose is safe. On the other hand, the average soda size is 20 oz. A 20 oz. coke has about 65 grams of sugar. And since the sugar in coke is made up of about 40% glucose and 60% HFCS, we are drinking around 40 grams of fructose with every trip to the local 7-Eleven. We are getting more daily fructose than we should (in the form of HFCS) with two servings of a 20 oz. coke, which is not an extreme amount of soda for many Americans.
- HFCS is a type of “marker” for nutritionally empty foods. It is found in cakes, cookies, juices, soda, salad dressing, sweetened yogurts, and energy/sports drinks. So not only are you eating super high amounts of fructose, you are also consuming zero nutrition. Seems like a lose-lose to me.
- HFCS also produces something called “free radicals” which can ultimately alter our DNA and induce disease states like cancer and heart disease.
- And finally, as we know, excess calories translates to excess body fat. Too much sugar, in whatever form, will lend itself to obesity. And because it is so easy to consume too much sugar in the form of HFCS (because it is in everything in high amounts, and because it is seriously delicious and thus addictive) it makes sense that HFCS has been pinned as a main culprit for the obesity epidemic.
So, what do we do about it?
In an ideal world where businesses would operate solely with the intention of serving the overall health of its consumers, HFCS would not exist. And I guess, then, neither would tobacco companies. But they do and the reality is that we have to coexist with them, therefore; we have to come up with ideas and tools for allowing ourselves certain freedoms and enjoyments but also being aware and educated about what we are consuming. So my advice is this:
Unless you are extremely mentally stable with no tendencies towards unhealthy relationships with food (i.e., eating disorders), do not try and cut out HFCS entirely. If you want to try and get rid of it completely, by all means go right ahead. But the truth is that these foods and drinks with HFCS taste awesome. What is better than a slice of chocolate cake with about 3 inches of icing (also chocolate) on your birthday? Not much. Allowing yourself to eat or drink foods with HFCS every once in a while (as part of a balanced diet based mainly on whole foods) is fine. Obviously, I am not saying go crazy and drink 5 sodas a day with your heavily-processed meals. You will feel like crap and probably not be healthy.
HFCS is a part of our lives right now, as are alcohol, smartphones, and old Nickelback songs being played in your grocery store. I’d never tell you to give up alcohol because it is bad for you just as I’d never tell you to not go grocery shopping so you don’t have to hear “Photograph” again. Not sure if that makes sense, but it seemed to in my mind for a second. We need to be educated about the danger of HFCS and speak out about why it may not be good for our population, but let’s also take a chill pill and eat some damn ice cream every so often.
And one final thing: eat your fruits! They taste delicious and are quite good for you.