Q&A: High Fructose Corn Syrup

by Phil Kaplan

Q: I'm confused about high fructose corn syrup. Why is it so bad? Is this another example of the sugar industry spreading propaganda? I know fruits are considered healthy and from what I understand, fruits use fructose as their sugar, so what's the difference when it comes from corn? Bottom line question: should I avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup?

A: The confusion and controversy over this sweetener abounds, and it’s no wonder.  In the 1970’s, when High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) was first commercially introduced, it was recognized as a highly beneficial compound, primarily to food manufacturers. It was sweeter than sucrose, didn’t have to be dissolved (it was already liquid), and wasn’t unstable in acidic products as table sugar is.  Best of all, it was made from corn which is abundant here in the U.S  We import a staggering amount of sugar from sugar cane from other nations, many that have not found standardization in their process and reliability. Corn was abundant domestically . . . and cheap!

Yes, 30 years ago, all hailed HFCS.

Today you hear that it causes diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and excessive fat production around vital organs.  There are conflicting studies, some indicating risk, others interpreted by experts as indications that HFCS is treated by the body much as any other sugar.

Here’s where the spotlight needs to land.  It shouldn’t be so focused on what HFCS does in a laboratory, but rather the shift in sugar consumption over the past 30 years.  HFCS is just a delivery system for fructose, and the problems lie not with fructose itself, but with the excessive amounts Americans consume.  30 years ago our population consumed fructose in its natural form, primarily fruits, and that was just fine.  Today it is the primary sweetener in almost all sugared soft drinks, and nearly half of the packaged foods, breads, and middle aisle products use HFCS.

Fructose is not metabolized in the same manner as glucose, the body’s natural direct energy source.  While glucose is stored in the muscles and released to maintain blood sugar, fructose is metabolized by the liver.  Glucose is used by virtually every cell in the body and only a small percentage of consumed glucose is directed to the liver.  Fructose hasn’t any option.  It goes to the liver where it may be converted into Free Fatty Acids, LDL Cholesterol, and triglycerides.  The amounts in a regular diet including fruits and vegetables is manageable, but flood fructose into the liver and open the door for increased activity of Advanced Glycation End-Products (AGE), predecessors of virtually all of the diseases we associate with aging. 

Research has clearly demonstrated that increases in fructose consumption result in reduction in insulin efficiency, increases in fat accumulation, and in some individuals the liver may begin to resemble that of an alcoholic diagnosed with a fatty liver, even though no alcohol Is involved.

So, to the bottom line question, one glass of juice sweetened with HFCS isn’t likely to do much harm, but look at a population in which the average person consumes near 60 gallons of soda annually, amounting in near 70 pounds of fructose, and the risks become real.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is not your friend, and while I encourage you to make natural food choices including fresh produce containing fructose, I think the evidence is clear enough to say, avoid HFCS and eat supportively!

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