Obese America: Is Corn Syrup to Blame?

In a recent discussion about fructose and heart disease risk, a reader brought up the issue of high fructose corn syrup and I promised to address this hot topic in a new post.  Let me just say up front that a lot of people are likely to disagree with my view on this subject. But what’s a blog without a little controversy once in a while?

For those who haven’t been following along, there has been a lot of heat around the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup in processed foods.  Manufacturers can save big bucks by using HFCS in place of more expensive table sugar, or sucrose. (One reason that HFCS is so much cheaper than sugar is that corn is heavily subsidized by our government via the Farm Bill, but that’s another story!)

Many products (most notably soft drinks) that used to be sweetened with regular sugar now use HFCS instead. It’s also true that the increased use of HFCS in the food supply roughly corresponds to rising obesity rates.  And there is research suggesting that fructose may be more readily stored as fat than glucose, which is metabolized differently.

These facts have led many to conclude that the rise of HFCS in industrial food production has led to our current national health crisis of obesity and related disorders (such as diabetes and heart disease).  Not surprisingly, some savvy marketers have even managed to position sugar as healthy, touting virtuous HFCS-free soft drinks that are sweetened with good old fashioned sugar. But hang on a second.

High fructose corn syrup sounds like it would be high in fructose, right? The truth is that it contains roughly the same amount of fructose as…regular sugar.

Sucrose is about 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Regular corn syrup almost entirely made up of glucose. In order to make it a more appropriate substitute for sucrose, raw corn syrup is enzymatically treated to convert some of the glucose into fructose, bringing fructose/glucose ratio up to that of regular sugar.

Look, I’m not saying HFCS is good for you.  All I’m saying is that HFCS is not higher in fructose than sugar…it’s just higher in fructose than regular corn syrup.  Personally, I think the rise in obesity rates has less to do with the influx of HFCS into the food supply and more to do with our increased consumption of soft drinks and other calorie-dense foods.  As portion sizes (of everything) get bigger, our calorie intake increases and we gain weight.

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